Combustible Celluloid
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With: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Ann Dowd, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier
Written by: Bart Layton
Directed by: Bart Layton
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material
Running Time: 116
Date: 06/01/2018

American Animals (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hardcover Crime

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

On this true-crime movie, writer/director Bart Layton attempts a new angle and succeeds; it's narrated by the actual participants and brilliantly edited, bringing fascinating layers to the proceedings.

In American Animals, which tells a true story, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) drift through their suburban life, until Spencer discovers the rare book room at Transylvania University in Kentucky. There, priceless copies of a Darwin edition and Audebon's Birds of America are kept.

The friends begin to entertain a "what if" idea of stealing the books, which, over time, turns more and more into an actual plan, complete with plans and charts and disguises. They enlist two others, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner), and a date is set. Despite their fantasies of how the heist is going to go — fueled by a well-studied stack of heist movies — the actual day comes off quite differently.

Layton's previous movie, the documentary The Imposter, asked pointed questions about perception, acceptance, and truth, and he continues with those themes here, albeit in a more crowd-pleasing way. Not only does American Animals allow for its interviewees to sometimes contradict one another, it occasionally drops them right into the action along with the actors to further underline possible inconsistencies in memory and storytelling. (The movie claims that it's not "based on" a true story; it is a true story.)

Even better are the imagined victories, the scenes that play just like traditional heist movies, but with an outsider's knowledge; the scenes play against the characters' knowledge and the viewers' knowledge in fascinatingly different ways.

The film probably wouldn't have worked if not for the fine performances, especially by the nuanced, vulnerable Keoghan (disturbingly good in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Ann Dowd, who brings great fear and hurt to her role as the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (the real Ms. Gooch also appears as herself). It eventually captures the horrible weight of committing a crime. In this way, American Animals is not only highly entertaining, but also provides food for thought.

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