By Jack Dignan
And as it turns out, the easiest way to make peace with our meaningless existence is to attempt a robbery. Or at least, that’s how it goes in the eyes of Warren Lipka, portrayed here by American Horror Story actor Evan Peters. American Animals is not based on a true story. It is a true story. The film, which blends together documentary footage and recreations of the events, tells the story of four college students who thought they could bite off more than they could chew while attempting to undergo what’s been described as one of the most audacious heists in US history.
The goal? To rob Transylvania University of the priceless books it’s keeping locked away and put on display in a room only accessible through an arranged meeting. For them, the heist sounds simple enough, although as the proceedings get underway they discover it’s anything but. While the film certainly follows a number of heist movie tropes, deliberately following in the footsteps of the many movies its four leads obsess over, the characters even going so far as naming themselves after colours in a hilarious moment of homage to Reservoir Dogs, and yet director Bart Layton makes this a whole new experience, even for the most proficient of heist movie fans.
While American Animals sees Layton dipping his toes into the world of narrative cinema, he doesn’t leave behind his documentary roots. Interjected between interviews with the real people and a recreation featuring Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson, this blend of fact and fiction slowly unravels into a dark and hard hitting commentary of young men struggling to find their place. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but at the same time, it’s unlike any heist movie before it. The crosscutting narrative allows for an easy execution that delves even deeper into who these four men were both at the time of and after the incident. They sought to become tortured artists and in a strange way they got it.
It’s high in style, yet never flashy in execution. An early moment in which Spencer and Warren each misremember the same moment cuts seamlessly between both interpretations, reaching the same conclusion in a unique way that never bats you over the head with how different and unique its approach to storytelling is. These moments, which are spread sporadically throughout, all lay the groundwork for an ending that absolutely knocks it out of the park. And while I don’t want to talk about it too much out of fear of spoilers, the heist sequence is beyond brilliant.
The entire cast is at their top of their game, with special mentions needed for the always-sensational Barry Keoghan, but this is Evan Peter’s movie through and through, and it may just be his best performance yet. While an initial introduction is a little choppy in editing, the first of many puzzling moments like this (the editing ranges from wildly impressive to wildly incoherent), it’s his layered and almost sad performance that deepens not only his character, but also the overall impact this film has. American Animals doesn’t quite manage to take the title off of Widows for “best heist movie of 2018,” but it’s far from the worst, and I had a hell of a good time with it.
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