FILM REVIEW: "American Animals" takes a heist thriller into the wild
During my recent quarter-life crisis I tossed-up purchasing a saxophone. During Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen’s quarter life crisis, they planned and executed one of the most audacious art heists in U.S history.
American Animals chronicles every librarian’s worst nightmare: a brazen, true-to-life book heist. The crime is orchestrated by struggling art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and loose cannon Warren (Evan Peters in his finest performance yet), both of whom are searching for a unique escape from their derivative lifestyles. And what results is a phenomenal cinematic experience.
Director Bart Layton is at his best, executing his now-signature blend of documentary and narrative direction. In one of the most interesting stylistic choices in recent cinema (one that is, ironically, guaranteed to be stolen,) the real-life thieves talk the audience and characters through their ideas, aspirations, and motives. They even go so far as to alter the scenes before our eyes due to their opposing memories. This stylistic choice helps us appose actor and actual person. It also accentuates Peters’ fantastic performance as heist instigator, Warren - an enigmatic, intense and perplexing wild-card fuelled by personal conflicts, Reservoir Dogs fantasies, and the lack of anything left to lose except the chance of a lifetime.
Instead of gratifying their criminal actions, the film analyses the perpetrator’s thoughts and ideologies and, in doing so, provokes a haunting commentary on the concept of the guilty conscience. When presented with an opportunity normally found in only the biggest and boldest action films, what screws need to come loose to make an ordinary citizen cast everything aside to seize it? These characters are unprofessional, empathetic and, most importantly, real. They’re not suit-clad career criminals doing one last job to settle their debts; they’re struggling and confused young adults looking to change their lives at any cost. Their shortcomings and optimism not only play fantastically in a genre overstuffed with acute professionalism and remorseless gunplay, but elevate this thriller into a poignant commentary on the prospects of everyday people.
American Animals is the best of both worlds: blockbuster thriller and madcap documentary. Because of the incredible nature of the real-life crime, the film never forces us to suspend our disbelief while showcasing this thrilling and entertaining heist.
The cast and crew are not holding back either. Layton has assembled a team as talented and audacious as any of Danny Ocean’s efforts. From the visceral performances to the banging soundtrack, innovative cinematography, Oscar-worthy editing, and scintillating pacing, American Animals goes off without a hitch. And, with its unique combination of style, sincerity and charm, it easily steals the acclaim from other recent biopics. The jury is in: this is one of the greatest ‘based on a true story’ films of all time. Perhaps even one of the greatest heist films of all time.
And me? I still haven’t saved up enough to buy that saxophone. But let’s just say I have big plans.
5 out of 5
Header Image Credit: Courtesy Sundance