Bart Layton’s dynamic and energetic American Animals is an intriguing mix of the heist narrative and documentary interviews. Based on the real life exploits of four college age boys in the early 2000s, it follows Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) as they decide to carry out a heist of expensive and rare books from their college library.
The main cast all excel in their roles as middle-class, “disenfranchised” young men who are looking for something extra in life. An upper-class lifestyle that they don’t have to pay for, that they will break the law in order to achieve, simply because they feel that they deserve it. Layton shows the aimlessness and boredom of the four men through repeated shots of dull lectures, evenings spent watching other teenagers set a trolley on fire, silted suburban family meals. That is to say, none of the characters are likeable – they are too self-obsessed, too melodramatic to be relatable – but through the documentary ‘talking heads’ to the camera from the four men now in their thirties, who look back on their past actions and motivations, this film becomes more than another indulgent piece on the “mischievous’ (and violent) exploits.
American Animals acts as a companion piece of sorts to David Fincher’s Fight Club and the narrative that has sprung up around since the film was released in 1999 – the idea of middle America’s revenge on society around them that increasingly ignores the issues surrounding college-educated white men – namely their insatiable desires towards violence. And what better way to own society than to steal something important for a few million pound? Unlike Fight Club, however, the protagonists are there to reflect on their actions, fifteen years later, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity.
This film is more than that though, it carries all the beats and motifs of a heist movie, combined with the real life difficulties and mishaps that cause the downfall of the four young men. With mechanical forethought, they create wooden models of the buildings, only to be undone by blown light bulbs in the basement. It’s also a knowingly funny film, complete with over-the-top prosthetics and several Reservior Dogs references, which only serve to reinforce the inevitable shock of violence when it explodes in the third act.
It’s an interesting film that’s worth a watch. More than just a heist film, or a coming of age tale, it takes you by surprise and asks questions of an audience that may have been expecting a nice entertaining two hours at the cinema.