Heist movies have long been a staple of cinema: a group of charismatic criminals band together to execute the perfect crime. The film is divided into the planning, the failed execution, surmounting unplanned for problems and the getaway. This formula could be getting stale, so what can American Animals add to the heist film.
Bored art student Spencer Reinhard is looking for something to excite him before he moves on into the real world. He and his friends Warren, Erik and Chas decide to have a little fun by stealing rare and valuable books from the school library. However, despite all their careful planning, the heist isn’t the smooth ride that they expect.
American Animals proudly proclaims that it isn’t based on a true story, it is a true story. However, it becomes clear that that is not the case. Like I, Tonya before it, American Animals intersperses its action with interviews that challenge the validity of what is happening on screen, but unlike I, Tonya the actual people are being interviewed. This leads to some very creative set pieces, like fourth wall breaks, transitions and retellings of the same scene. While these disappear the interviews and action reach a gut punch of an ending.
The story of American Animals operates in the same way to most other heist movies. We have the planning phase where our characters talk like they are professional criminals a la Oceans Eleven, trying to set up their perfect heist, but it plays with our expectations. In much the same way a usual heist film would use misdirection to hide the fact that they had planned for eventualities, like in Ocean’s Eleven and Oceans Twelve, American Animals uses misdirection to keep audiences away from an objective truth. It leans into its true story nature to present us with kids that are as charming and likable as the glamourous Danny Ocean but when we reach the end they are robbers, thieves and kids way over their head. As such the actual set piece climax of the film, the heist that the movie has been building to is the tensest in cinematic history. Everything is perfect, from the score to the cinematography, from the composition to the performances, it all comes together in the best worst way.
Evan Peters, an American Horror Story and X-Men alum, is one of the actors giving the hardest punches, as the slightly rebellious Warren, who almost becomes the leader of the group. Barry Keoghan, from Dunkirk, Everybody Wants Some’s Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson provide a more grounded and emotional centre spiralling around Peter’s stardom as the heist goes from Hollywood fantasy to frightening reality.
In American Animals, we get time to get to know these characters and how they felt, their guilt, their hopes, their anger their frustration. This does make the film slightly overlong, but it allows for emotional connections that are required for that endpoint. They are presented as real people, not only thanks to the performances and the interviews but the little details. There is a sequence where Warren and Spencer watch a bunch of classic heist movies, like Raffi, and it is here where we get at one of the core themes of the film. It foreshadows perfectly the expectation of a heist movie and proceeds to tear it to pieces, cliché by cliché.
American Animals is an odd combination of watchable popcorn fun and harrowing emotional. It plays with audience expectations of a heist movie and the nature of narration in an intelligent way that leaves you off balance not sure who to believe, who to root for. It is truly amoral like the American Animals themselves.
You can watch American Animals in cinemas now