Review: American Animals (2018) A Very Unique Take on Telling The Story Behind a Unique Crime

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A unique and engrossing film that is equal parts true crime documentary and scripted heist film with enthralling central performances.

True crime is a passionate fascination of the American psyche. In the past several years, programs like HBO’s The Jinx and the podcast Serial allowed viewers to vicariously experience the why and the how behind disturbing crimes that seemed alien to the imagination and at the same time avoidable if not for the fastidiousness and character of those involved. In many ways, Bart Layton’s American Animals falls into that same milieu; a film that is a documentary behind the attempted theft of a rare book of Audubon paintings from Kentucky’s Transylvania University told from the multiple perspectives of all those involved, but that is also perspective shifting dramatic reenactment of the circumstances behind the theft. The format is very novel; Richard Linklater’s 2011 black comedy based Bernie, based on the life and crimes of Texas’ mortician/murderer Bernie Tilde mixes the perspective of the actual West Texas community affected by the crime with actors playing key roles. But here, we have the actual antagonists telling their own stories as talented actors re-enact their misadventures from the past for a decidedly interesting viewing experience.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. The two feel as if their lives have been circumscribed for them; Barry feeling stifled and trapped as a college student and Warren trapped in a college sports scholarshipo life he feels belongs to his father. The two share their ennui through petty thefts and vandalism; at times very reminiscent of the ennui of the self seen by Edward Norton’s narrator in Fight Club and many of their petty rebellions seem inspired by scenes seen in that film. It continues that way until one day Spencer is given a tour of the collections wing of the university library by librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) that he learns that the university has a 12 million dollar book of original Audobon paintings, alongside first editions of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, that could serve as a break from the reality theyre trappen in if only the two friends could steal the treasures and become millionaires in the process.

From here, we experience the 2 friends bring in others to their increasingly more convoluted theft plans, including international flights to meet underworld fine art fences (Udo Kier) and additional accomplices Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson). Its an interesting approach, one that mirrors The Usual Suspects, especially in the film’s closing moments where we see even the principals dont trust if the events in the film happened and if certain characters even existed or were invented whole cloth.

American Animals is one of those rare cinemati beasts; something genuinely original and the film’s stylish direction and compelling character work and soundtrack will hook you in. Definitely check it out.

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