Film review: American Animals

A real-life robbery by four US students is the basis of American Animals, a thriller which melds documentary and dramatisation to impressive effect, writes Damon Smith

Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters in American Animals
Damon Smith

THE repercussions of crime are brought sharply into focus in writer-director Bart Layton's lean, propulsive thriller, which stars Irish actor Barry Keoghan (Love/Hate, '71, Dunkirk).

Based on the true story of four young men who orchestrated a daring heist in December 2004 at Transylvania University in Kentucky, American Animals elegantly melds documentary and dramatisation to sift through the contradictory testimonies of the perpetrators.

The reliability of these remorseful narrators, who were arrested and sentenced, stokes the intrigue of Layton's film.

"I guess you just have to take my word for it," comments one real-life robber, who appears on screen alongside the actor playing him.

The men's words and actions blur – a neat stylistic conceit, which Layton uses sparingly and to great effect as his film gathers momentum, careening at alarming speed towards an inevitable final reckoning.

A brief coda reveals the fates of the four robbers, one of whom still lives in Lexington, within driving distance of the scene of his fall from grace.

"In real life, the bad guys don't get to ride off into the sunset with the money," he sombrely notes.

Art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) believes the key to becoming a great painter is daubs of life experience, and he has none. After a tour of the special collections section of his university's library led by custodian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), which houses a rare edition of John James Audubon's beautifully illustrated The Birds Of America, Spencer conceives a plan to steal several manuscripts with athletics scholarship student Warren Lipka (Evan Peters).

"We're talking about 12 million in rare books and only one old lady guarding it," summarise the young men.

While Spencer employs his artistic skills to sketch the library's internal floor plan, Warren travels to Amsterdam where he meets an enigmatic middle man, Mr Van Der Hoek (Udo Kier), who can fence the stolen books as long as they are authenticated by a reputable auction house.

The underhand scheme takes shape and Spencer and Warren realise they need additional manpower.

They involve two friends – Erik Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) – as a lookout inside the library and a getaway driver.

The plan is simple: to immobilise Gooch and steal the books, then make a hasty exit through a back entrance, unseen by other staff who could sound an alarm.

Unfortunately, the students' best laid preparations falter and fraternal bonds buckle under the strain of a high-profile police investigation.

American Animals sinks its claws into our undivided attention, galvanised by strong performances from the four leads.

Layton's shifting focus between real-life testimonials and reconstructions – sometimes multiple versions of the same scene – is tightly controlled by a quartet of editors.

They deftly piece together a mesmerising mosaic of youthful recklessness, impetuosity and sweat-stained desperation.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (15, 117 mins) Thriller/Drama/Documentary. Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier. Director: Bart Layton

RATING: 8/10

Released: September 7 (UK & Ireland)

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