Academy Awards Watch – American Animals Review: A Captivating Stranger Than Fiction True Crime Heist


American Animals is the true story about four young men who attempted to rob the Transylvania University library of some of its most valuable property from the rare book collection. The de facto leader Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) serves as the rebellious, volatile idea man; Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is the corruptible artist in search of adventure to give his life meaning; Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) is the mathematical genius bored with his academic studies; and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), the athletic in search of a high, who agrees to be the getaway driver. The four come together under the common fairy tale of striking it big with their scheme, daring the world to stop them.

What works in American Animals is the simulation of the ride these men likely took through strategic stylistic choices. Writer/director Bart Layton injects his story with such energy, it quickly becomes easy to answer the question, “why would anyone even think of this, let alone attempt it?” There is an inherent rush in the planning stages of the heist that is admittedly infectious. The crew goes so convincingly from watching old heist movies with a bucket of popcorn to staging meticulous stakeouts and escape routes practices, that audiences may find themselves wondering exactly how the movie will end. American Animals stresses that the quartet of thieves were extremely well-prepared.

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Layton also makes some strong decisions about how to let his story unfold. First, he interweaves recollective commentary from the actual heist participants to add contextual depth, giving American Animals a slight documentarian quality. This style often has a comedic ripple effect. For example, Layton often presents multiple versions of the same scene if two memories conflict, which can result in humorous contradictions. Layton also isn’t afraid to use the timing of the heist, and homages to cultural references, to accentuate the more fun aspects of the story. Specifically, the events of American Animals occurred in 2004, when the Ocean’s Eleven franchise was wildly popular. As such, Layton samples music from that series and even borrows some of the dialogue implying the romanticizing effect those films had on these individuals.

While American Animals is incredibly intriguing as a human-interest story, there are some who may find the purposeful tonal shift stark and unsettling. While likely intended, American Animals quickly turns from an entertaining adventure to cautionary tale. The fun is turned off like a light switch. The sudden change is likely reflective of the actual events, but the anticipation of what audiences know must be coming may feel a bit draining as the film rolls into the third act.

American Animals weaves together a fascinating event by offering a truly in-depth look into the factors that compelled and motivated a premeditated crime. There’s nothing quite like this blend of documentary and non-fiction and up-and-coming director Layton should be applauded for crafting something highly original and compelling.

Recommended if you liked: Ocean’s Eleven, The Bank Job, The Thomas Crown Affair

Final Grade: A-

Possible Academy Award Nominations:

  • Best Original Screenplay – Bart Layton

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Fox Troilo

Fox serves as an entertainment journalist in the Washington, D.C. When not covering cinematic news for LRM, he critiques films as a member of the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association. Fox also has a Ph.D. in Higher Education and Strategy from Indiana University Bloomington.

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