'American Animals' Review: A Quasi-True Story Of An Audacious Art Heist

(This review originally ran during our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival. American Animals is in select theaters today.)

Heist movies are all about setting up the illusion of clockwork precision, but every good heist film features at least one scene where the job goes horribly wrong – and the great ones often dive into the bitter consequences of crossing the line.

In that tradition comes American Animals, a compelling new heist drama from writer/director Bart Layton, the filmmaker behind the impressive 2012 documentary The Imposter. Here he conducts an interesting harmony between fiction and non-fiction, intercutting dramatic scenes featuring his primary cast (Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner) with actual interviews of the real-life thieves they're playing. The result is a mesmerizing blend of narrative and documentary storytelling that would seem too far-fetched to believe if it was just another run-of-the-mill thriller.

Spencer (Keoghan) is a college-aged would-be artist in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004 who yearns to experience something extraordinary so he can channel it into his art. His best friend Warren (an electric Evan Peters) is the kind of friend that everyone's probably had at least once: that charismatic guy that edges you toward trouble at every opportunity. (He has a tattoo of a Tyrannosaurus rex trying and failing to pull the chain on a ceiling fan, so that should give you a better sense of his personality.) As we're introduced to these characters, we also meet the real Spencer and Warren in a series of talking head interviews, providing context for their decisions and loosely narrating the events of the film.

Wracked with a bout of suburban malaise and existential questioning, Spencer tells Warren about a cache of rare books that are housed in a special room in his college library – one that's guarded by only one librarian (Ann Dowd). So the pair head to Blockbuster (remember, this is a period piece) and rent every heist movie imaginable as a crash course in how to plan a heist. (Warren also enlists the help of Google, literally searching for "how to plan a heist" and clicking "I'm feeling lucky.") The film picks up steam as it begins to check off the boxes you'd expect to see in a heist film: things like scoping out the location and figuring out how to sell off the books once they've succeeded.

But the duo quickly realize they need a third member of their operation, someone who's "good with logistics." That's where the brainy Eric (Abrahamson) comes in, and the new trio run through the whole plan; Layton films this dream moment in a smooth oner that makes the heist look like the easiest thing in the world. But their plans are stifled with another realization: they need a getaway driver. Enter Chas (Jenner), a rich acquaintance of theirs who they bring on board because Chas has the cash to buy an inconspicuous getaway vehicle.

We get caught up as Warren assigns them all Reservoir Dogs-style nicknames and they slip into costumes for the event itself – at times it's almost reminiscent of a more dramatic and less funny Office Space, because as dumb as they are, it's fun spending time with these morons. But it's not long before the fun gives way to a gut-wrenching reality check.

Occasionally, Layton intercuts commentary from the real versions of these guys, showcasing the conflicted memories of shared experiences and playing with cinematic form along the way. (A scarf changes colors in front of our eyes and a shady contact totally changes appearance as the real guys reveal that they remember these moments differently.) And the film actually has some points, albeit basic ones, to make about things like identity, growing up being told you're special, and having to make your own moments in life instead of waiting for them to be handed to you.

As the heist itself unfolds, the movie transitions from the goofy, childlike thrills of possibility to the cost of following through on a selfish, boneheaded plan. Dowd's librarian adds a human obstacle to their plan, and their suspenseful confrontation with her sets off a string of screw-ups that sends the movie racing to its conclusion. Peters is phenomenal as Warren, doing some of the best work of his career as he encourages the rest of the team to buy into his delusion that they're capable of pulling this thing off. Blake Jenner is the last to join the team, but absolutely explodes off the screen, pure emotion raging beneath rippling muscles. Unfortunately, Abrahamson's character is so underwritten that he barely registers, and Keoghan's straight man role feels like it could have been played by anyone in his age range.

American Animals is a gripping study of the importance of perception, the fluidity and inconsistency of memory, and the unforeseen ramifications of one of the most audacious heists in American history. I wish it had a little more on its mind, but it mostly works as an enjoyable piece of entertainment that doesn't need too much analysis to appreciate.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10