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Review: American Animals

June 22, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

An ambitious mix of documentary and narrative storytelling, American Animals recounts the true story of four average young guys from middle class suburbia who plotted to steal original editions of books by John Audubon and Charles Darwin from a college library in Lexington, Kentuckey.

It’s bored college student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) who gets the idea to steal the books after being taken on a tour of the library’s special collections room, and he is egged on by his “bad influence” friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a petty thief who really puts the plan into motion.

Needing help with the whole operation, they bring in accounting student Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and young entrepreneur Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), and together the four guys work to craft a carefully thought out plan to pull off the perfect heist and find a buyer for the stolen goods.  While their plan is inspired by a large swath of heist movies that they watch, and there is a very brazen quality in their choice to do it in broad daylight donning old man makeup, they are also dealing with real life so there are obviously a lot of unpredictable elements that get in the way of their cinematic plan.

The film is directed by Bart Layton, who also used reenactments with actors to help tell a stranger than fiction story in his stunning 2012 documentary The Imposter.  But American Animals tips the scale even further, to the point where it feels like more of a narrative film than a traditional documentary.  The story is told through reenacted scenes that are intercut with candid interviews featuring the real people who were involved in the heist, which is a unique and extremely effective choice.

This really allows them to tell the story in their own words, with what they are saying sometimes being repeated by the actors, and certain details that will change in the middle of a scene depending on which narrator is telling the story.  This not only shows that this tale is only as reliable as their memories and what they are willing to tell us, but it also allows for unique insight into why they were planning to steal the books, which was mainly because they were feeling restless and wanted to do something exciting with their lives.  The performances from the four leads are excellent, especially considering that we are seeing them right beside their real life counterparts.

While American Animals is quite entertaining to watch, and it plays with the sort of jittery suspense that you expect from any good heist movie, there is also a tragic quality to the film as it goes on, heightened by the fact that we are being constantly reminded that these are real people with real lives that got upended by their decisions.  The result is a compelling film, that blurs the line between narrative and documentary filmmaking in a really unique and exciting way.

American Animals is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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