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MOVIES: American Animals - Review [Sundance 2018]



"They were pretty darn good kids," says a high school teacher from Lexington, referring to the four young men charged with orchestrating one of the most significant art thefts in US history. Bart Layton (The Imposter) explores the caper, along with its origins and aftermath, in his first narrative feature, an intriguing mix of documentary and dramatization called American Animals.

Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is a bored art student at Transylvania University, sleepwalking through his daily routine in search of something that will spice up his life. While touring the university library's collection of rare books, a thought occurs: some of the items in this collection are worth a fortune, and the only security seems to be an elderly librarian (Ann Down). He half-jokingly pitches the idea of a heist to longtime pal Warren (Evan Peters), and before long an elaborate scheme has been hatched to acquire a few volumes and sell them on the black market for an insane amount of money.

As the magnitude of this idea becomes clear, Spencer tries to back down, dismissing the whole thing as a joke, but Warren won't have it. "Everyone thinks they're gonna win the lottery," Warren proclaims. "But no one buys a ticket." This robbery will be their winning lottery ticket, setting them up for the rest of their lives. Warren recruits math wiz Eric (Jared Abrahamson) to help map out the logistics, and taps athletic pretty boy Chas (Blake Jenner) to serve as the getaway driver. But despite consuming numerous heist films in preparation for the big day, none of the boys seem to have any inclination of how easily things can fall apart - nor what to do when it happens.

Similar to a tactic used by Craig Gillespie in I, Tonya, Layton frequently cuts away from the action to interviews with modern-day versions of the central characters. But instead of employing actors, Layton utilizes the real-life people involved in the crime, which adds for a fascinating bit of perspective, and allows the film to take liberties with certain events, thanks to conflicting recollections from each of the participants.

That the crime is ultimately unsuccessful isn't a shocker - the film doles out this information within the first few moments - but this detail hardly matters, because what's so intriguing about the crime is why the boys chose to attempt it in the first place. Why were these young men from good backgrounds, and with bright futures, willing to throw it away? That's the question that American Animals seeks to answer, and while the conclusion is a bit muddy, Layton's film is a tense and exciting journey with an incredibly unique approach.


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