FILM REVIEW – AMERICAN ANIMALS. With Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier. Written and directed by Bart Layton. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude sexual material. 116 mins.
It’s an ancient conservative bugbear to say that bad kids see too many movies, but personally, I’ve always thought the problem was more a matter of watching them wrong. That’s certainly the case with the young men of AMERICAN ANIMALS, writer-director Bart Layton’s true-life tale of a 2004 rare book heist gone awry at Kentucky’s Transylvania University. The four students who fancied themselves criminal masterminds weren’t in any particular financial need, they were just bored, overprivileged, and wanted life to be as exciting as their favorite films. Too bad none of them paid attention to how those pictures end.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s” supremely creepy Barry Keoghan plays the straight man here, seduced into a whole playbook of bad ideas by Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”) when the two set their eyes on the school library’s stash of original Audubon books. (There’s also a copy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in there too, because real life is full of hacky symbolism.) They round out the crew with a childhood friend (Jared Abrahamson) and recruit a spoiled rich kid (the spectacularly smarmy Blake Jenner) to be their getaway driver because he can borrow his mom’s minivan for the heist. There’s even a scene in which they assign themselves multi-colored code names, mimicking “Reservoir Dogs” as if the blood-soaked black comedy was somehow aspirational.
“Not my favorite Tarantino,” chimes in one of the real-life robbers, who by the way happen to appear throughout “American Animals” in quasi-documentary interviews. Occasionally they even show up like ghosts over the shoulders of their Hollywood counterparts as Leyton riffs on the malleability of memory, adjusting the movie mid-scene to correspond with the participants’ occasionally conflicting accounts. (I seem to recall the filmmaker toying with unreliable perceptions in his acclaimed 2012 documentary “The Imposter” but for all that movie’s stuck with me I honestly couldn’t tell you anything else about it.)
The movie’s meta-trickery isn’t nearly as impressive as Leyton’s handling of the heist itself, a squirm-inducing set-piece during which our boys are forced to subdue the school’s kindly librarian (old reliable Ann Dowd) and their celluloid fantasies come crashing down to cold, ugly reality. These guys haven’t quite figured out how to account for the sheer size of these Audubon books, and taking the elevator isn’t exactly the smartest way to make a clean getaway. Those things also stop on other floors, you know?
Their scheme is so stupid one could easily see Leyton turning the tale into a Coen Brothers-y farce in which bad things happen to dumb criminals, but instead, he sticks with a tone of impressively mounting dread. “American Animals” conjures a nifty, pit-of-your-stomach feeling like when you know you’ve blown it but there’s no going back. The movie’s most novel element is not its show-offy intrusions by the actual participants, but rather how long it wallows in the robbery’s aftermath – the cold clammy wait to get caught.
And yet, on the other hand, there’s something troubling about seeing everybody here just a decade and change later – happy, healthy and appearing in a movie about their own misguided youthful foray into armed robbery. In many ways these boys are finally getting what they always wanted – their adventure immortalized in just the kind of heist picture they’d probably all buy on DVD.
After all, well-heeled white kids don’t have their lives ruined by such transgressions, a class critique the movie probably could have made more explicit but is lurking around the margins all the same. There’s something troubling about “American Animals,” but I think deliberately so. It sticks in your craw.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.