American Animals is a totally absorbing heist movie that just happens to be true–although director Bart Layton is cagey about just how true. He opens in the present day, interviewing the real-life parents of the main character; then we flash back in time to the meet all four conspirators as college students. Drama and documentary begin to blur in a tantalizing way.
Barry Keoghan plays a talented artist who worries that he hasn’t suffered like the great painters of the past. His parents say they weren’t crazy about Warren (Evan Peters), a free spirit who lives on the wild side. These two pals—apparent opposites—hatch a crazy scheme to steal an Audubon folio and a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species from the Rare Books collection at Transylvania University in Kentucky. The lure of danger and a hefty pay day allow the boys to push beyond all logical red flags and go through with the burglary. Ann Dowd is perfect as the librarian who keeps a careful watch over these prized possessions and eventually finds herself smack in the middle of the whole debacle.
The tense narrative is interspersed with interviews of the real guys today, expressing regret and looking back on the folly of their enterprise. The key characters admit that their memories diverge on certain points and even their own may be faulty. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of the story.
As writer and director, Layton (a documentarian making his dramatic debut) gives us a fresh take on the American dream. His protagonist has everything going for him, including the support of his parents. There is no obstacle to success but he feels he has to create one in order to become a true artist.
This clever, twisty, incredible-but-true story also explores the nature of friendship and the difficulty of pulling off a crime—as opposed to fantasizing about it. When was the last time you saw a caper movie that’s also a social commentary? Anne Nitkin’s score is interlaced with songs by Leonard Cohen and The Doors, among others, to evoke the period the movie depicts. Most important, filmmaker Layton never makes a false move, using a true-crime story as the foundation for this exploratory drama. It’s smart entertainment, a nice piece of counter-programming in the midst of so many mass-audience blockbusters.