American Animals, written and directed by Bart Layton, went from what was at first a light-hearted but mostly placid adventure into what became an intense experience in which the true gravity of the situation had me sitting up-right in my chair, tensed up and fully attentive to the terror that was unfolding for the characters. All of this was made forever involving with some interesting cinematic choices that saw the film being more than just your typical telling of a true story. There are some really intriguing decisions which play into how this film was made and then presented and I’m looking forward to talking about some of them, so enough with this rambling introduction. Let’s get into the review.
Based upon the true story of when four young men, Warren – played by Evan Peters – Spencer – played by Barry Keoghan – Eric – played by Jared Abrahamson – and Chas – played by Blake Jenner – set out to pull-off one of the most audacious heists in U.S. History and steal $12 million dollars’ worth of books from a University library in Kentucky. What started out as harmless fun turned into something that would change their mundane lives forever.
In the beginning, American Animals does a good job of inviting you in and making you eager to be a part of its (seemingly harmless) story. It’s mainly thanks to its likeable, relatable characters that this is the case. But what made it even more so was the unconventional but effective decision to have the actual accounts from the four men themselves be intercut with the story. When it first happened, it caught me off guard. Usually films like to separate reality from their dramatic retellings, but with the director’s experience in documentary filmmaking, it makes sense. But most importantly it works.
This decision not only gave the film an air of authenticity, but it also added another layer of weight to proceedings. To be directly linked to the actual people involved; to hear things from their perspective and to know that there were consequences for the actions of their younger selves, rather than just a fun but mostly harmless experience, made the film one I felt immediately more connected with.
What better way to connect you to the characters in the film than to have the real-life individuals there, talking to you? The most important aspect of all of this though is that despite cutting to interview footage and away from the dramatic retelling of events, it never took me out of the experience. It was never jarring to jump from one to the other. Somehow it felt… right, it felt natural.
My caring for the film was made all the easier because the fun adventurous nature of the story, coupled with the engaging, likeable characters, and also some dazzling cinematic visuals, resulted in American Animals having my attention.
It also spoke to me through its primary theme. We’ve all been young, bored and desperate for a drastic change to come hurtling into our lives. But usually most people are unwilling or fearful to ever chase that change. So to watch these young men chase adventure spoke to me. I related to where they were in life and how they felt, and it made me all the more excited to see them hopefully achieve change. But I feel I should stress that this is all under the guise that I didn’t expect the severity of their dream chasing to go where it did. I saw it more as an avenue to realising what was out there that they could grab a hold of and make something worthy from. It wasn’t the criminal acts that I was excited by, it was the potential to discover something new and freeing through their adventure that shouldn’t have become a reality.
So for me, the package that American Animals was offering seemed well-rounded and poised to enthral me until the end, but there came a shift (not the only shift, but I’ll get to that other, far more impactful shift in a moment). This shift that saw my engagement with the film begin to waver.
The film entered into a point where the characters were solely focused on setting up their heist. It was mildly interesting, but for the most part I found this to be where the film began to lose steam. It started feeling like any other heist film and the magic that had been firing throughout the film before had lost its lustre. It was in no way bad; the film still boasted some great characters and its visual nuances continued to delight me. It’s just that things went from feeling unique and full of a youthful energy, to feeling… like any other film.
But as I mentioned, this wasn’t the only significant shift in the film. When it actually came time for the boys to enact their heist, there was a sudden and impactful change in the tone of the film. The light-hearted, harmless fun of before faded away and in its place was the overwhelming smack of reality that went onto be an extremely visceral, unforgettable, game-changing experience from American Animals.
It was at this point that I sat upright in my chair and over the course of the final act was stunned by what I was watching. The acting up until this point had been good, but it’s four main characters really upped their game during this point in the film. The panicked rush from Evan Peters’ (Warren) performance gave the scenes a manic tension. The breathless fear from Barry Keoghan (Spencer) had me emotionally gripped. The unravelling terror from Jared Abrahamson (Eric) punched up the intensity of the situation. And the scene stealing breakdown from Blake Jenner (Chas) was a moment that left me shattered and wowed. If nothing else this film highlights the incredible talent of these four young actors who were given some good material and made it truly great.
The film had gone from something fun and mostly engaging to something I couldn’t look away from. Pure panic, pure terror dominated every scene and knowing it was all true made it all the more effective. I think the ending to this film took it from an okay but mostly forgettable film, to something that left a significant mark on me. I couldn’t stop running the final 25-30 minutes of this film through my head and thinking over its character driven greatness. It took it beyond just being another telling of a true story and into a film that stands on its own as something genuinely moving.
I had my doubts during the second act, but after seeing it all, I know that I absolutely recommend American Animals. Don’t underestimate this film. Don’t let its weaker moments cause it to slip away from your attention. This film will get you and it will leave an imprint on your memory for sure. I hope you go see American Animals and I hope you enjoy your time with it.
I’d love to know about your experience with American Animals and what you thought of my review of it, so please feel free to leave any thoughts, opinions or feedback you may have in the comments section down below. If you liked what you read then please consider following both/either my blog and/or my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But I’ll stop rambling at you now and end by offering you my sincere thanks for stopping by and giving my little blog a chance. I hope you liked it enough to consider returning. Thank you and have a fantastic day!