American Animals (5 stars)

American Animals review

Bart Layton fuses documentary and drama for an audacious and insightful heist movie

Since the world definitely doesn't need another conventional male heist movie, Bart Layton gives us something a bit different. The British director of BAFTA-winning doco The Imposter fuses documentary and drama in a masterfully balanced, insightful and impactful amalgam.

'This is not based on a true story,' reads the opening text. 'This is a true story'. A recreation of events leading up to and including the 2004 Transylvania University library heist in Lexington, Kentucky is interspersed with interviews with the quartet of participants, their crestfallen parents and the woman they held hostage. American Horror Story's Evan Peters plays the anarchic Warren Lipka, widely regarded as the ringleader, with Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) his more contemplative companion Spencer Reinhard, a wannabe artist thirsting for a life-altering experience.

The two filmmaking styles should work against each other: one presenting a distorted version of reality, the other shattering our suspension of disbelief. Yet Layton blends them so adeptly that they feel complementary rather than contradictory; he adds substance to a barrelling, excitingly shot narrative by delving deep into his feckless subjects' motivations. Bravado morphs into breathtaking stupidity and, as their fictional counterparts unravel before our eyes, the shamefaced perpetrators regretfully reflect on their actions.

Directed with urgency but also an overriding sense of loss and folly, American Animals is an interesting paradox: a cautionary tale that easily disabuses us of the notion that there's glamour in criminality, while itself being a stylish beast. The men's differing recollections of events are drawn coherently together in a film that ends playfully, challenging at least some of what we've seen. It's as audacious as the robbery it depicts, yet executed with infinitely more panache.

General release from Fri 7 Sep.

American Animals

  • 5 stars
  • 2018
  • US / UK
  • 1h 56min
  • Directed by: Bart Layton
  • Cast: Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Blake Jenner
  • UK release: 7 September 2018

A group of young men plan and execute a heist of a university library in 2004. A masterfully balanced and insightful blend of drama and documentary, with a dramatization of the heist interspersed with interviews with the real participants; the two styles should work against each other but they complement each other…