- Review by Eoin O'Donnell
American Animals is a film that, in a lot of ways, defies description, genre or convention. It deftly weaves comedy, drama and documentary into a package that is somehow coherent and thoroughly enjoyable. Whatever simplistic crime caper you might expect from the film, writer/director Bart Layton implores you to look past it to find a much richer, funnier and more thoughtful picture.
Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan star as the film’s dual protagonists, along with their characters’ real-life counterparts serving as the unreliable narrators that recount the story of their outrageous heist. Peters turns in an unpredictable, enticing performance in the vein of his more deranged characters from American Horror Story, and Dublin’s own Barry Keoghan continues what seems to be a hot streak of compelling emotional performances after last year’s Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer. Rounding out the cast are Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson and Ann Dowd, all of whom turn in exceptional performances, alongside their real-life counterparts in documentary-style inserts which are often comedic but also surprisingly powerful.
The chemistry between Keoghan, Peters and their co-stars feels completely natural and it’s a pleasure to watch unfold. The group’s antics and interactions are more Breakfast Club than Ocean’s 11. The film manages to combine the unreal, far-fetched story beats of a heist film with the tone, look and feel of a coming-of-age drama. The teens, battling the boredom of college and struggling to find their place in the world, make for a set of unique, relatable protagonists with more to connect to than the garden-variety criminals that ordinarily fill out the heist film template.
The film, as well, is perfectly aware of this, drawing on and playing with the tropes of the genre, going as far as a montage of the main characters watching the ‘essentials’ of heist movies to prepare, and riffing on the codenames of Reservoir Dogs’ titular thieves. The film is lined with the soundscape of the sixties and seventies, the soundtrack packed to the brim with the classic songs of the same heist films that inspired so much of American Animals. The film does an excellent job of paying respect to the mainstays of crime cinema, whilst still injecting enough originality to create its very own flavour of heist film. Layton’s documentary-making experience is also put to remarkably good use, bringing the larger-than-life story down to earth with the words of the perpetrators themselves.
For those both familiar and unfamiliar with the details of the heist that makes up the narrative centrepiece of the film, Layton’s script continually toys with and subverts the audience’s expectations and preconceptions about the crime. The film takes a swift, yet natural turn from light-hearted caper to incredibly tense thriller, sharp comedic beats mix with intense, stressful stretches of pure tension. What should be a severe case of tonal whiplash somehow comes together in a coherent and satisfying way.
In a refreshing fusion of old and new, American Animals is a film that toys with your nostalgia and keeps you guessing to ultimately stand alone as its own accomplishment. Layton’s feature film debut comes together as an achievement maybe even more impressive than the heist that inspired it.