Four college students decide to do something special with their lives, so they plan a heist of rare books by watching movies and eating candy.
Writer-director Bart Layton’s American Animals is a funny, suspenseful heist film wrapped around a true crime documentary. And it’s just brilliant. Evan Peters, Barry Keoughan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson star as four college students who plan the perfect heist of a collection of rare manuscripts from the library at Transylvania University in Kentucky. Of course, they start by Googling it. You can’t make this stuff up. Or can you?
From the outset, we’re presented with contrasting truths: this is both a true story and not. This is told to us in a title card at first, and it’s followed by regular jumps between dramatisation and interview footage of just about everyone involved in the real-life heist. This tells us at once that this really happened, but that memory and truth are tricky things. Perspective is key.
A motif of eyes pervades the film, playing on the inconsistency of perception. The real-life criminals act as unreliable narrators, accentuating the fiction-non-fiction/reality-fantasy juxtaposition. Adding to this are heavy homages to other crime films: the style of Ocean’s 11, the music and intensity of Pulp Fiction, the blending of fantasy and reality with sheer audacity of The Big Lebowski. Allusions and direct references to classic films, both heist-related and otherwise, abound–from Jaws to Reservoir Dogs. The boys distract themselves with nicknames and costumes in preparation for the heist, building up a fantasy of what they’re about to do. Clearly, these four boys care more about the idea of the heist than actually considering the morality of their actions.
This off-kilter mashup of reality and fantasy shines through most poignantly as their sole victim (played by the consistently admirable Ann Dowd) sobs all-too-realistically and pisses herself when they begin the heist. True to the structure of the film, once the crew’s fantasies begin to be realized, the weight of their actions comes crashing down on them.
They want to pull off the heist because they want to make something unique and unexpected happen for themselves. But rather than follow in Mr. Rogers’ footsteps, by learning that you’re special and then doing something with that information, they decided to be destructive, selfish, narcissistic losers. It’s the ultimate in young white male privilege–four fairly entitled college students who have their futures laid out before them, given to them, all ready to pull off a heist. Not because of need or circumstance, but because they don’t want the blandness that awaits them.
American Animals will certainly be on our radar in a bigger way later in the year when we draw closer to Oscar season, likely for Original Screenplay, but I wonder about the integration of the documentary footage and how that might affect its chances.
It’s both incredibly funny and horribly tragic, with an awkward tension that only comes from rubbernecking at an accident or watching people embarrass themselves in public. This film makes razor-sharp observations about the boneheadedness of these students’ actions, that they’re truly amateurs whose fantasies have become delusions, utterly pointless and nihilistic. They risked everything to feel special. And what did that glean them? Nothing at all.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.