Following in the footsteps of Sarah Buddery’s Blackkklansman review, I’m finding American Animals a really difficult film to review. I’ve been trying to find an angle from which to approach the film since I saw it. It’s a film that has been firmly trenched in my mind for days now, despite the fact that on initial reflection, I wasn’t a big fan of it. Or at least, I don’t think I was. The film has morphed in my mind thanks to the numerous discussions I’ve had and articles I’ve read into something that I didn’t think it was, but even now I’m still completely unsure of myself. So, with that in mind, let’s do a deep dive into Bart Layton’s American Animals.

American Animals is a true story about two friends, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), who are seemingly bored with the day to day life of university. Spencer notes how he always feels like he’s waiting for something to happen. Warren considers himself something of an Artful Dodger, and the two conspire to do something extraordinary…just because. That something extraordinary? To steal an extremely valuable collection of books from the University library and sell them for profit.

There are a lot of positives to be said about American Animals, particularly the performances. Evan Peters has been on the map for years after his regular starring roles in American Horror Story, but has never made the leap to a true leading man. Here, he’s very much playing the Evan Peters-type, the cocksure, street smart, witty college student, but he seems to understand the vulnerability behind Warren. His natural charm gets him out of several holes, but once he’s in a place of uncertainty, his frailty comes out, and he loses his cool easily. Peters plays the role excellently.

Barry Keoghan’s Spencer is different. Spencer is an Art History major and an excellent artist, as shown by his hand-drawn library blueprints. He comes across as a university student who is only there to satisfy his parents. He doesn’t seem challenged by university, and feels he’s destined for something more than he’s doing. Keoghan, one of Hollywood’s current golden boys following stellar performances in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Dunkirk, is perfect for the role. His unassuming nature and blasé attitude to everything he does, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary, is something Keoghan does well. Spencer has an intelligence about him that goes far beyond his peers, but he downplays it for others’ benefit.

Other elements of American Animals leave an impression too. The cinematography is particularly impressive in the first two-thirds of the film (this sadly diminishes as the film progresses, which I’ll get to later), cross cutting our protagonists with various “American animals,” shown as startled owls, deer in headlights, vicious bald eagles. The first few opening shots of an upside down horizon and an upside down American flag blowing in the wind are particularly impressive, but like I said, this style doesn’t last.

Music also plays a great part in the proceedings, ramping up tension when necessary and infusing scenes with 50s, 60s, and 70s rock classics, per Warren’s taste, to complement the imagery. Composer Anne Nikitin felt in control, knowing when to bring music to the fore front and when to have it drift in the background.

Here is where this review reaches a fork in the road. I saw American Animals on an evening where it was a secret film, I had an idea what the film would be, but I didn’t know for certain. I’d seen one trailer beforehand, so I went in fairly blind. I’m about to reveal a major element of the film because I feel it needs to be discussed relating to the efficacy of the film, but if you wouldn’t like to know what it is, please close this tab and carry on with your day. If you’re curious, read along.

Are we safe? Has everyone gone? Okay.

American Animals is a documentary. Or, it’s half of one. Bart Layton frequently cuts into the dramatic narrative to show interview footage with the real Warren Lipka, and the real Spencer Reinhard. This completely took me by surprise. At first, I was fascinated by the execution of it; Layton has effectively created a documentary of his own film and shown them both simultaneously. The documentary aspect brings a new dimension to the film and really drives home the unreliable narrator angle.

The story has two narrators, and both of them remember the story differently. There are some very creative sequences where we see the same event from two different perspectives. The real Warren remembers telling The real Spencer about his heist plan at a party, but Keoghan’s Spencer, mid-party, tells Peters’ Warren to “pull in here” because The real Spencer remembers being told of the heist while they were driving. Scenes change on screen as the real person narrates it differently and it adds to the experience, questioning who we can trust, and asking us what to think of The real Warren and Spencer.

Being half a documentary is both a help and a hindrance to American Animals. The help comes with scenes as described above, and offering insights into the actual people behind the heist, but the hindrances, for me at least, outweighed the positives. So much of the tension within the heist was diminished knowing certain details about the outcome just from visuals alone. The beginning of the film, upon reflection, is further interview footage showing a reaction to the crime that promised to be shocking and something that they couldn’t believe happened. And yet, the heist we got doesn’t have the necessary shock factor to stick the landing.

The tonal whiplash from being a smart, Edgar Wright-ish heist film to a stereotypical documentary results in an ultimately frustrating experience. The film promises so much in its opening half an hour and doesn’t manage to deliver on such promises. I mentioned earlier about the cinematography losing its way as the film progresses, there is an angle from which I understand the decision to make the film less flashy as the fantasy becomes reality, but it doesn’t come across as well as it thinks it does.

I hope you see why I found this so difficult to write about it. It’s a film that, despite my frustrations, deserves to be talked about from many different perspectives – the morality of the students, the filmmaking, the way the students are perceived. ‘American Animals’ feels like a film that honestly could have been something spectacular, but it doesn’t manage to reach such dizzy heights.

Rating: ★★★

Directed by: Bart Layton
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd