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Film Review: American Animals

Director:  Bart Layton

Cast:   Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson

Rating:   MA

Running Time:   116

Australian Distributor:    Madman Films


Audiences are becoming disillusioned with the truth. Whether it’s due to the constant influx of media or the fact that most features take “artistic liberties” with history, there’s a belief that most historical movies are inherently disingenuous. This is why director Bart Layton’s American Animals feels so refreshing. His blending of documentary subjects with narrative filmmaking brings up questions of authenticity.   

American Animals is a raucous crime drama whose small-town heist story sounds too good to be true: Four young men living in Kentucky decide to inject some excitement into their lives by robbing a school university of its rare book collection.

The whole ridiculous affair seems blatantly fictional, except that four men actually planned and executed the portrayed heist—though it’s unclear who initially came up with the scheme: the upright Spencer (Barry Keoghan) or screw-up Warren (Evan Peters).

Layton brings his documentarian past into this feature by inputting interviews with the real men at the centre of this robbery into the narrative itself. The only thing everyone can agree on is the heist itself, and much of the fun of the movie is in hearing each person deny another’s version of events.

Layton’s script, and the men’s own thoughts, imply that they were driven to commit the crime to inject excitement into their lives. By watching movies about heists, they hoped to have fun and avoid reality.  As the plan inevitably goes awry, there’s a bit of divine retribution to the whole thing—a sign they’d been hoping for but couldn’t foresee. The story entertains both through the real-life interviews and the filmed re-enactments.

The four real subjects of the film are interviewed throughout the film, introduced in succession of when they became a part of the plan. The main character is Spencer and the real Spencer, whose interviews we see the most. However,  the real star of American Animals is Evan Peters’ Warren and the real Warren Lipka. You can’t make up half the stuff this guy does in the film, and many of the thoughts that come out of his mouth are real gems, both the real and fictionalised Warren.

Layton’s film flows beautifully. Everything, from the planning of the heist to its execution and aftermath has a natural grace to it. Yet Layton also finds the fun at its core, particularly when the heist bottoms out. American Animals is a wild, rollicking story that makes us question how authenticity can be integrated into narrative filmmaking.

It is worth seeing for Evan Peters’ entertaining depiction of Warren, plus Bart Layton’s unique blend of drama and documentary.




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