American Animals is a dramatic crime film that is written and directed by Bart Layton. Based on real-life events, the film follows two friends – Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) – who plot to commit a heist of expensively rare books (including The Birds of America by John James Audubon) maintained at the library on campus at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. What starts out more like a dare quickly turns into a dangerous reality as the boys (who eventually recruit two more guys to the team – Chas Allen, portrayed by Blake Jenner, and Eric Borsuk, portrayed by Jared Abrahamson) become increasingly fixated on the prospect of doing something daring and interesting with their lives.
This movie is a thrilling experience, and the style in which it is presented is fascinating and adds significantly to its allure – the film is a hybrid that combines elements of dramatic narrative and documentary filmmaking in an exceptionally unique way. Throughout the movie, Layton skillfully mixes in interviews with the real-life characters, and these interviews aren’t in the form of archival footage – instead, Layton actually filmed new interviews with the real people behind the heist attempt and intercut those shots with the narrative being told. So essentially, the scenes starring Keoghan and Peters embody an incredibly well-crafted reenactment of the story being told through the documentary-style interviews. This technique was wildly intriguing, and it never once reached the point of being gimmicky. Layton employed this system of storytelling aptly as a way to better advance the plot and its rich themes of entitlement and delusion, and American Animals was a grittier film because of it.
As far as the story itself, it is absolutely absurd. From the very start, the plan that Spencer and Warren hatch is utterly misguided and illogical. All four of the college kids involved in the scheme come from seemingly normal middle-class families, which only adds to the silliness of their heist attempt – influenced by Tarantino movies, these guys seem to just be looking for an adrenaline rush to spice up their lives with the prospect that it might provide some sense of meaning to their existence. The entire movie is a subtle referendum on entitlement, which makes the ultimate message so deep, despite the fun and entertainment that comes along with telling a heist story. As seen in the interview scenes, the real-life Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka recite the events with vast contradiction, leaving the audience to guess whether certain parts of the story ever really happened. It is an engaging tale of delusion, and Layton tells it well.
The reenactment portion of the film features some impressive acting performances, particularly those of Keoghan and Peters. I have seen Keoghan in a few bit parts over the last couple of years, but he broke out in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer – although I liked Keoghan much better in that film, where he was perfectly haunting and amusingly wicked, he is still a force in American Animals. He portrays Spencer’s apathy with precision. I was also thoroughly impressed by Peters’s performance as Warren. Despite the fact that the plan is initially concocted between both Warren and Spencer, it is Warren who pushes the heist forward at every step, including organizing a buyer for the rare books that are to be sold. Peters is remarkable in his depiction of Warren’s fixation on the heist, and his portrayal of Warren’s accompanying delusions of grandeur is spot-on. American Animals is rated R for language throughout, some drug use, and brief crude/sexual material.
American Animals trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAhruSwum1c&t=34s