Friday Film Review - "American Animals"

Jul 6, 2018

A new movie about a brilliant crime that went wrong, makes for a film that gets so many things right. Libby Wadman offers that verdict, for this week’s Friday Film Review.

Director/Screenwriter Bart Layton, who specializes in true life stories, such as 2012’s Imposter, is back with American Animals. A story that certainly proves life is stranger than fiction.

American Animals is the true story of one of the FBI’s most significant art thefts. It was carried out in broad daylight by four college students at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. The idea for the theft came from art major Spencer, a nice boy from an upper-class family. Spencer, though, feels that he is at best ordinary and is missing the tortured or tragic element of life. Spencer thinks that missing element is the key piece that served to provide the passion and power of the great artists. A visit to the rare book collection at his college, provides him with an idea of how to get that empowering element into his life: steal the rare first edition John James Audubon Folios. As he shares this dream with his buddy Warren, the two start to make the fantasy reality.

So many things are right with this film making, the whole package is a great watch. Kudos to Director/Screenwriter Bart Layton and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland. Who, from the beginning, have the audience wondering. They draw them in completely, through the use of John J Audubon etchings that scroll slowly across the screen. The images blown up to a size where all of the painstaking detail are clear to the eye. These etchings go from scenes of gentle calming birds to the more violent acts of avian hunters. A most intriguing lead in to a movie.

American Animals is actually two films seamlessly woven together. The one film is retelling of the story as a dramatic film, the other is documentary consisting of interviews with the people who were actually involved in the story. This juxtaposition really brings the dramatic retelling to life and adds another dimension to the interviews. Perhaps the most fascinating effects are the incredible blending of dramatic scenes with the documentary; and some very subtle changes to elements seen in the tableaux being acted out while the participants describe what happened. As they correct what they remember happening, the scene also corrects itself. Such a subtle effect, but it is so well done that the real and unreal become one; not too unlike the dream of the heist and the heist itself.

The acting is wonderful. Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abramson, and Blake Jenner portray Warren, Spencer, Eric and Chas, respectively, are all incredible. Keoghan and Peters are so believable as teenage college students who can be so intelligent they can plan one of the most famous art thefts and yet not so great at thinking through things beyond the moment leading to the all too real and harsh consequences of their actions. The actors do a flawless job of entwining the dreams and reality in such a credible way that the line between them is truly blurred. The emotional roller coaster the actual participants experienced is so well portrayed by the actors that you will be on the edge of your seat with your stomach in knots, as you watch the story unfold. Kudos to the actual participants and their families, all of whom present their stories beautifully.

To go along with all of the fine technical aspects, the direction and the acting; is the perfect soundtrack. The original score does a beautiful job of enhancing the mood of the moment, and if you listen carefully to the words of the songs you’ll find they all serve to enhance the action, emotions, and lessons learned.

I cannot say enough about this film. Despite a few dramatic changes to events, this is an incredible telling of an incredible stranger than life story. And a powerful example of how, as the participants said, “Once you’ve crossed the line, you’ve crossed it forever.”

American Animals is a fascinating 1 hour 56 minutes in length and is rated R for language throughout, some drug use, and brief crude/sexual material.

This is Libby Wadman with the Friday film review, sponsored by the Park City Film Series, reminding you that film is always fun and fascinating.