American Animals is truly one of the more interesting heist films in recent memory; not only does the incorporation of real-life interviews make the film more authentic and playful at the same time, but directory Bart Layton takes the time to look at post-heist anxieties and examine the implications of an event like this on young men. Unlike most heist films, these characters are not in it for the glory or fame, but rather a fulfillment that’s been lacking in their lives, and American Animals takes the time to look at these men and the lines they cross in their search for meaning in life.
Based on a true story, the film follows a heist to steal rare priceless books carried out by four Transylvania University students: Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Chas (Blake Jenner), and Eric (Jared Abrahamson). The dynamic between Keoghan and Peters is established early on, and the film smartly establishes Keoghan as a moral compass and Peters as a unreliable narrator. Abrahamson also does some great work here, specifically as he struggles with the possibility of violence, and while I felt Jenner was underused and underdeveloped overall, he has a fantastic emotional breakdown that stands among the film’s best scenes.
The heist scenes are executed brilliantly and feel frantic and desperate, just as the characters are. While the film takes painstaking detail in the details of the plan and its implications, the last minute anxieties and changes make for some truly thrilling sequences. The post-heist scenes are just as thrilling; this is a rare robbery film that focuses on post-traumatic stress and allows us to empathize with the crushing pressure forced upon the characters, yet the film is more interested in tracing the roots of their desires to pull off the heist than justify them, which makes for a stronger experience overall.
American Animals is a unique true crime experiment, as it uses its narrative and characters to look at themes of ambition and desire, yet still delivers a tour de force thriller that makes the most of its small scale. I was invested in the story of four friends searching for an escape from reality, yet I was simultaneously able to reflect upon how the real actions of these men affected their community. It’s an interesting balancing act of exploring characters and real people at the same time, and I was riveted by the sense of dread perpetuated by this harrowing thriller. Grade: A-