Movie Review: American Animals (2018)

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As Mena Suvari's Angela Hayes said in American Beauty, "I don't think there's anything worse that being ordinary."

Released in 1999, this same type of existential yearning that used to be reserved for teenagers coming-of-age started to recur in the various forms of popular culture we consumed with haste. Right on the verge of the millennium – when the world was more visible and more connected than ever online – we began questioning more than ever just what if anything would set us apart from the rest of the pack.

It's this exact same sense of panic that prefaces The Imposter director Bart Layton's Darwinian tinged true crime docudrama about four Kentucky college students in 2003 who spend their time looking out of the windows of their classes, dorms, jobs, and cars for that "special" thing they need for their lives to begin.

Finding if not that than at least a sense of purpose in the form of twelve million dollars worth of rare books housed in the Transylvania University library, what starts out as a hypothetical discussion of "if we were going to steal the books, how would we do it?" turns into their ticket out of suburbia battle cry.

Renting every single heist movie available at Blockbuster and putting the skills of talented artist Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) to good use sketching the entire layout of the Transylvania Library, eventually the casualness of the What If game falls away, leading to the start of a plan.

And after Spencer's risk-taking alpha male friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) begins building bridges to the outside world in preparation, which gives the two the chance to trade their local surroundings for the big bad world (however briefly), they return to Kentucky invigorated.

Bringing like-minded friends into the fold, they recruit no-nonsense problem solver Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and wheelman Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) who’s essentially just in it for the cash.

Rather than simply turn fact into fiction, Bart Layton offers viewers the best of both worlds. Falling back on his strengths as a documentary filmmaker, he weaves footage from interviews he shot with the group of four, the Transylvania University librarian, as well as their family and friends into the narrative.

Daring to use one mother's heartbreaking admission that she felt like she woke up in a nightmare when she heard the news of her son's crime, Layton infuses the film with a sense of doom and remorse right from the start.

Nonetheless fighting against that to create a great piece of thoughtful entertainment about the twenty-first century's new lost generation who today you might see trying to get their fifteen minutes of YouTube fame or fifty thousandth Twitter follower, in American Animals, Layton gives us a very real, very earnest look at peer pressure and masculine identity in coming-of-age.

Cinema usually saves existential questioning and societal alienation for middle-aged males and adolescent angst for beautiful young women (think Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in American Beauty respectively). Yet writer/director Layton's willingness to work these themes into an already complex, multi-character driven storyline helps set the film apart by devoting more time to questions of who and why as opposed to the heist genre's obsession with where, when, and how.

Using actors who embodied their real life counterparts more in spirit than opting for mere lookalikes, led by frequent American Horror Story scene stealer and character acting chameleon Evan Peters, Animals features a uniformly excellent cast from Keoghan (in a particularly heartrending turn) to The Handmaid's Tale's Ann Dowd as the librarian with the misfortune of safeguarding the collection they've made their raison d'ĂȘtre.

Representing the competing and often contradictory recollections of Spencer and Warren in particular, there are times when the roughly two hour feature struggles in its ability to balance enough plot and supporting players to rival the animal kingdom, thus sending viewers online to do a Warren style deep dive in order to fill in the blanks.

Yet while this might've lessened the success of the film if it had been a complete work of fiction, the fact that we leave Animals wanting to know more about these boys is a sign that – more than anything – Layton's docudrama has completely reeled you in.

A technically stellar effort, throughout its running time (and especially in both the beginning and end), American Animals uses cool fast cuts and a first rate soundtrack to elevate the picture's heist movie elements. But it's in the intimate human moments of how they cope with a life-altering family announcement or respond to the pressures of life for the first time as an adult that this film proves just how special it really is as, in the end, fighting past the bravado to zero in on the ordinary is what makes Animals – minor flaws and all – extraordinary.

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