Okay, let’s talk about the American Elephant in the room. I suggest a moratorium on the word “American” appearing in book and film titles for a few years. It’s American clichéd, American familiar and American lazy. Also, it’s the opposite of what this film is: American Animals is a clever, engaging and inventive spin on a familiar genre.
The film opens boldly and maintains its confidence for its full duration: We’re shown teenagers putting on disguises to make themselves appear older, interviewees tell us that what happened was like a nightmare and that these kids had never gotten into trouble before. The slow-motion build-up to the heist, with the young gang looking like the Beastie Boys in the video for Sabotage, is snatched from us, and we’re thrown to a few months earlier where the first seeds of the crime are sewn.
What follows is a mix of fake documentary and heist movie. The film switches between the story of the robbery and interviews with “the real” versions of the characters telling their side of events. Here’s where it gets murky: Interviewees contradict one another, and fine details get hazy in recollection. Also, the interviewees are too polished and articulate to seem like real life versions of the young actors. This robs the movie of some of its potency: We should be blown away by the true story of young college kids embarking on a daring heist. Instead, we’re second guessing every moment like Chazz Palminteri at the end of The Usual Suspects.
Still, while it doesn’t quite pull off its high-wire maybe-fiction stunt, everything else about this film works. So while we don’t have the benefit of an unambiguously true story, we have to settle with a stylish, intelligent, exciting and emotionally rich film. The performances are terrific across the board, especially the two leads, who are starry in very different ways.
Evan Peterson has charisma and presence to spare, and is perfectly cast as the troubled delinquent who could convince less popular kids to go along with this cockamamie scheme. Dubliner Barry Keoghan is just as good, bringing a convincing, sensitive and poignant turn as the shy, smart kid.
The film offers the thrills that you’d expect from a good heist movie – tension, satisfying planning and logistics, juicy conflict (both in the characters’ motivations and in the gang). And it asks interesting questions: Why would a group of middle class young men attempt such a daring (nay foolhardy) job? How do you find a “fence” to buy your stolen goods? Is there ever a shortcut to greatness and wealth?
American Animals is more interested in questions than answers, and offers a rich social and psychological character study baked into an exciting heist movie for the price of a cinema ticket. That’s a steal.