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Movie Review: Heist Flick 'American Animals' Plays Brilliantly With Expectations


Published June 20, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 21, 2018 at 1:41 p.m.

Something wicked cool this way comes. Bart Layton, the Brit who gave us 2012's hybrid documentary The Imposter, unveiled his narrative feature debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film proved a sensation. It should arrive in Burlington in upcoming weeks, sensational news for anyone with a taste for the cinematically audacious.

American Animals is a really smart movie about complete knuckleheads. Its starting point is the 2004 "Transy Heist," a caper most notable for involving the improbable combination of Kentucky college kids, international art smugglers and books. That's right: This is a crime drama in which the crime goes down not at a Las Vegas casino or Paris museum, but at the Transylvania University library.

Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner play Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen. This being the work of a born genre bender, Reinhard, Lipka, Borsuk and Allen themselves play pivotal on-screen roles — as themselves. This is a picture that breaks the fourth wall. Then the fifth, sixth and seventh.

Layton's inventiveness transforms even something as routine as an opening "based on" title card into a fresh and playful flourish. Against a black background, the line "This is not based on a true story" appears. Seconds later, the words "not based on" vaporize, leaving the more daring implication: What you're about to witness will pierce the membrane of movie entertainment and extract something deeper, something diseased.

That something is the story of four bright, talented, everyday young men who came to believe life owed them more than their surroundings appeared likely to cough up. Like most young men of their time and place, they'd watched too many movies.

So, after Reinhard discovers that his school's rare-book collection — a trove of printed riches including John James Audubon's mammoth The Birds of America — is worth millions, it isn't long before he and the less stable, more alpha Lipka are spearheading the literary heist of the new century.

For which they prepare, naturally, by watching movies. These run the gamut from The Sting to Ocean's Eleven to The Getaway to Reservoir Dogs. After that last one, color-coded names are assigned as a security measure. A razor-sharp reference has nobody wanting to be Mr. Pink.

Fortunately, no one meets with a fate as bloody as that poor bastard's. But almost anything that can go wrong does, and at the worst possible moments. Even subduing a middle-aged librarian proves more challenging than expected, the dearth of crime films touching on the subject no doubt being to blame.

Layton's script offers a penetrating take on upper-middle-class malaise and uses a bracingly original device to suggest the dread and second-guessing the four experience before and after their crime. Scenes featuring the actors planning and pulling off the robbery are interspersed with footage of the four real-life thieves providing play-by-play, letting the viewer in on what the friends were actually thinking and feeling at the time. Think I, Tonya with Harding herself addressing the camera. At one point, Peters and Lipka share the frame to seriously surreal effect.

Such meta touches make for an exhilarating, stylish and memorable moviegoing experience, in concert with William Davis' dazzling art design (featuring striking use of Audubon's avian imagery) and a coolly propulsive soundtrack curated by Anne Nikitin. Not since A Clockwork Orange has the pack mentality of young males been examined this compellingly. And the gifted cast measures up to the comparison. These are quite literally scene-stealers.

The original print version of this article was headlined "American Animals"