American Animals is a heist flick unlike any you have seen before with a true crime story that feels especially fresh in an ever-crowded genre.
The film, which is written and directed by feature-film freshman Bart Layton, centers around a real life art heist that occurred in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2004. While an art heist might bring images of elaborate, high-brow espionage to mind, the crime American Animals pulls from is far from that.
Four college-age men (Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Jared Abrahamson) planned for months to steal precious bird paintings by John James Audubon, which happened to be bound in a large book on display at Transylvania University. The only thing that stood between them and the collection, which was worth millions, was librarian Betty Jean Gooch, but, as these things go, it was not as easy as it is in the movies.
While the story has its base level of intrigue for a heist movie fan, the style of presentation is what sets American Animals apart from any other experience at the cinema this year.
Layton seized the opportunity to pair a story destined for a big-screen adaptation with his own background in documentary filmmaking. This was done by splicing in interviewed segments with the real-life culprits and others connected to the case as the scripted retelling plays out. Think the format of 2017’s I, Tonya, but only if filmmakers actually interviewed Tonya Harding for exposition as opposed to an in-character Margot Robbie. It almost comes off like an Investigation Discovery true crime special filled with reenactments, but American Animals is the absolute ideal version of the hybrid style.
This structure, while somewhat jarring at first, quickly settles into place and offers context to blurry aspects and differing viewpoints of the story. Plus it helps sew in some interesting fourth-wall breaking moments on the scripted side, but those come too few and far between.
The documentary portions of American Animals are as top-notch as the high quality standards Netflix typically delivers in its numerous crime docs. Layton does an adequate job of capturing the energy and personalities of the core-four, especially in the case of charismatic class-clown Lipka.
However, the part of the film receiving the most emphasis is the scripted portion of things, and Layton and his cast deliver on that front, as well. On the page and behind the camera, Layton captures the thrill the thieves-to-be feel while preparing for the robbery and also the tension that builds until the heist occurs.
While all actors featured do fine jobs, the bulk of the film’s story rests on Barry Keoghan’s Reinhard and Evan Peters’ Lipka. The pair plays off each other well and encapsulates how the depressed art student Reinhard could ever gel with a troublemaker like Lipka.
Peters is a scene-stealer in just about every moment he is a part off, whether he goes full goofball or harnesses the darker tinges in Lipka’s personality. It is a treat to see him bite into a meaty role, untethered by the kitschy elements he handles on American Horror Story each season.
The flaws in American Animals start to show as the story wraps up. Viewers are left with mixed feelings on the theme of the film without a compelling argument either way.
On one hand, these were overall fine young men who took a thrill too far. On the other hand, they caused real physical harm to an innocent woman and emotional harm to their families due to their reckless impulses.
Layton does not present enough evidence to either sway the audience towards a side or leave it to the viewer to pick a rationality. Perhaps more documentary time should have been dedicated to the victim and the culprits’ families and/or how the men have tried to work past their mistakes since the crime.
While it does not fully stick the landing, American Animals is one of the most captivating films of 2018 so far, with a balanced-enough mix of levity and tension that leaves a fond impression.