The true-story re-enactment documentary gets a nifty, stylish, suspenseful heist film angle with American Animals, an engrossing film from documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter). 

The true story is as follows: In 2004, four students from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky made a plan to steal extremely valuable books from the library. The film’s narrative unfolds back and forth between interviews with the real-life people involved in the heist and some of those affected by it, and the movie’s rendition of the events, with Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some) and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) playing the four would-be thieves in these sections.

It’s the play between both mediums, the real-life individuals giving their versions of what went down and Layton’s slickly-crafted takes on how the events unfolded, that gives American Animals part of its appeal. The accounts of these men are full of contradictions, and Layton uses that factor to mould the film’s narrative, entertainingly playing sequences – rewinds, new angels, strange cuts, etc. You lean in, wanting to get ahead of their heist plan or seeing if you can figure out whose story has perhaps the most truth. It’s compelling stuff. 2017’s I, Tonya employed a similar technique, although that film had the “real” characters still played by the cast (Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, etc) and not Tonya Harding and co. themselves.

Madman Films

The ‘true story’ factor and documentary elements aside, American Animals benefits from actually being quite an enjoyable, tense heist film. The planning, the bringing in of new team members, the suspenseful events in and around the heist itself; taut genre fare that, while perhaps a little conventional, elevates what is essentially quite a simple story. Layton shows off an ability for writing and direction that should pave the way for more exciting filmmaking – maybe even in the more linear realm of movies? – in the future.

Peters, Keoghan, Jenner and Abarahamson are all very good as these four misguided young men, who embarked on this criminal endeavour not for a need for riches, but for a yearning for more, for excitement, for self-realised meaning. While the film skirts around the edges of some of these deeper issues, it would have provided a little more oomph to delve further into what was ultimately driving these guys, as opposed to staying mostly to the ‘this happened, then this happened, followed by this’ unfolding of events. Still, the four leads provide some of that internal back-and-forth, particularly Peters and Keoghan as the unlikely friends that kicked off the idea for this heist.

Despite teetering on the edge of being a little too long by the time the credits roll, American Animals is an undeniably well-crafted picture, balancing heist film and documentary to highly entertaining results.

SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆

‘American Animals’ opened in Australian cinemas on 4 October and in the US on August 14.