Sunday 23 September 2018

Film Review: American Animals

Kentucky, 2004. Four college students plot one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Fourteen years later, director Bart Layton regales us with their exploits in a darkly comic docu-drama, American Animals

To call American Animals a mere heist movie is a little reductive; it’s a heist movie about heist movies, where the real-life subjects – and by extension the characters – riff on the genre so heavily that they literally borrow from Reservoir Dogs. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets The Social Network, where bored, aimless and entitled college students talk themselves into a situation intended to transform their lives at the expense of others. It’s also one of the best films of the year. 

Straddling documentary and drama, Layton’s film cuts between fact and fiction with glee. Talking heads from the real culprits expose fault lines and shared doubts between the characters, acting as a retrospective inner monologue. Each recount of the events contradicts the other, sowing the seeds of doubt in the audience, but also putting a humorous and jovial spin on the escapade. 

The heist itself sees the film shift gears. Layton sheds the brisk romp vibe and smacks the audience with the same realisation as the characters – this shit just got real. All of a sudden the smiles are gone and panic starts to set in. As the plan unravels, the tension ratchets up to fever pitch. It’s heart-pounding stuff. Desperation replaces dreaming of a better life. And while all four leads – Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some) and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) – are great, it’s Peters who picks up the ball and runs with it, especially in the second half. 

Layton’s direction is another standpoint feature. The tonal shifts are handled with aplomb while the edits between past and present, real-life and fantasy, are brilliant. 

The Verdict: 8.5/10

Culminating in a wonderful coda reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, American Animals is a smart, snappy and has a potent message underneath the effervescent camerawork, editing and soundtrack.

American Animals is in cinemas across Australia from October 4.

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