Kentucky, 2004. Four college students plot one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Fourteen years later, director Bart Layton regales us with their exploits in one of the best films of the year.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
To call American Animals a mere heist movie is a little reductive. It’s a heist movie about heist movies, featuring the real-life subjects alongside a cast recreating the events that took place fourteen years ago. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets The Social Network, where a group of bored and entitled college students talk themselves into a situation intended to transform their lives at the expense of others.
Straddling documentary and drama, Layton’s film cuts between fact and fiction with glee. Talking heads from the real culprits expose fault lines and shared doubts between the characters, acting as a retrospective inner monologue. Each recount of the events contradicts the other, sowing the seeds of doubt in the audience, but also putting a humorous spin on the escapade.
The heist itself sees the film shift gears. Layton sheds the brisk romp vibe and smacks the audience with the realisation that shit just got real. All of a sudden the smiles are gone and panic starts to set in. As the plan unravels, the tension ratchets up to fever pitch. It’s heart-pounding stuff. While all four leads – Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some) and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) – are great, it’s Peters who picks up the ball and runs with it, especially in the second half.
Layton’s direction is another standpoint feature. The tonal shifts are handled with aplomb, while the edits between past and present, real-life and fantasy are brilliant. Culminating in a wonderful conclusion reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, American Animals is smart and snappy, bringing us a potent message underneath some funky filmmaking.
American Animals is available in Australian cinemas from October 4
Also screening as part of the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 20.
Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment and © AI Film LLC / Channel Four Television / American Animal Pictures Ltd 2018