Bart Layton’s inventive film is based on a real crime

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

American Animals
Broadway Theatre
Opens July 13
4 out of 5

U.S. conservative groups treat Millennials as entitled, Tide-pod swallowing, lazy brats. They’ve been raised as if they were special (“It’s Mr. Rogers fault!”, some pundit screamed in Fox News not long ago), but are unwilling to do the work.

This perception is incorrect. As with anything, generalizations don’t grasp societal complexities. Just consider the March for Our Lives movement: Millennials may yet become a force for change at the highest level.

Alas, there is a kernel of truth behind the oversimplification. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so pervasive.

American Animals dives into this area and the results are worth paying attention. It’s built like a 48 Hours-style crime flick but its depth and complexity just increases as it goes along. Multiple topics are dexterously juggled  and — for the most part — it sticks the landing.

Spencer (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of the Sacred Deer) and Warren (Evan Peters, American Horror Story) are childhood friends raised to overachieve. Yet by the time they land in university both are adrift, not quite the all-American youths they thought they’d become.

Spencer in particular is different. He wants to become an artist, but unlike the painters he admires, he hasn’t had any significant life troubles to draw inspiration from.

An opportunity materializes in the shape of old, rare books that could fetch up to $12 million in the black market. The texts are under the care of a librarian (Ann Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale), but outside of some perfunctory glass cases, they’re  shockingly unprotected. The likelihood of success convinces Spencer and Warren to take a walk on the wild side and get a taste of what they believe is “real life”.

With the addition of two accomplices (Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner), the planning gets underway. But since none of them has the slightest criminal experience — let alone the cold blood required — you know from early on the heist is going to collapse. How badly? You just have to watch.

I don’t necessarily agree with the main premise of American Animals, but one has to respect the clarity and intelligence with which the movie makes its point. The idea that overachieving leads to the need to establish oneself as superior by any means isn’t new, and is very much disproven by every successful and well-adjusted Ivy League graduate.

Writer/director Bart Layton (from the superb doc The Imposter) creates characters that are both complex and sympathetic, if not necessarily likeable. His vision is supported by a terrific cast. Not a dud in this bunch, with Canadian Jared Abrahamson (Hello Destroyer) as the stand-out by playing against type as the bookish brains of the operation (his only qualification is being nerdy).

Layton adds layers to an already compelling story, from documentary-style interviews with the actual thieves to a fantasy/dream dimension. The three planes of existence bleed into each other and add up to a richer experience than a mere true-crime story.

There is a version of American Animals that’s a laugh-out-loud comedy. This is not it. Sure, there are laughs to be had, but they are coated in pathos. Regardless, it’s well worth your time.