Consistently stylish and compelling, American Animals is thankfully conceived and executed on a higher level than the outrageous true-life criminal scheme it depicts.
While it might seem difficult to root for some frat-boy scoundrels role-playing Ocean’s Eleven, fortunately this low-key thriller is breezy and suspenseful while not taking itself too seriously.
“This will be something dangerous and very exciting,” promises one of the perpetrators behind the elaborate art heist at Kentucky’s Transylvania University in 2004, but he might also be referencing the film itself.
It proceeds to chronicle four college students — led by the boorish Warren (Evan Peters) and his more timid best friend Spencer (Barry Keoghan) — whose thrill-seeking instincts turn them into book thieves. Together they hatch a plan to disguise themselves as old men and infiltrate the treasured archive of rare books at the university’s library.
The goal is to pilfer some prized first editions of classics from Audubon, Darwin, and others, and then turn a profit on the black market. However, the subterfuge hits several snags along the way, including a feisty librarian (Ann Dowd), rigid final exam schedules, and an amateurish getaway strategy.
Their motives generally remain cloudy, but likely can be traced more to hubris and adrenaline rather than outright greed, or perhaps a misguided desire to break free from the collective expectations of their affluent upbringing.
American Animals seamlessly mixes fact and fiction, or in this case, documentary and dramatization. Such a strategy perhaps is a logical next step for filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter), whose prior effort traced a scandalous impersonator by weaving together re-enactments with factual accounts.
Embracing that unconventional approach, Layton’s screenplay gradually builds tension, even if it bogs down in exposition in the first half and some of the subsequent narrative transitions feel awkward. Still, although some of the details are likely embellished, the intense and exciting depiction of the larceny and its immediate aftermath is accompanied by a thoughtful exploration of the moral complexity behind their actions.
The young actors capture a convincing camaraderie while also generating mild sympathy for their unscrupulous characters. If you’re not sure whether to laugh at the absurdity of their actions or just shake your head, American Animals smartly doesn’t force you to choose.