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Monday, July 9, 2018

American Animals

The other film to evoke animals in its title this week (wait, Ant-Man and the Wasp does too - and twice at that!) but American Animals is a rather different, um, beast to Show Dogs. And this is a rather different review.

Once again, this review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

A group of college students at Kentucky's Transylvania University fancy themselves the heroes of their own Hollywood-like story and attempt to steal a priceless art book from their college library. As things get increasingly complicated, they soon come to realize just how much life is not like the movies. Based on the amazing true story and featuring interviews with the real people involved.

What we thought

Even if you're getting a bit tired of heist films after the very recent Solo: A Star Wars Story and Ocean's 8, you're going to want to make sure you don't miss American Animals. It boasts all the snappy editing, plot twists and style that audiences have come to expect of the genre but where American Animals excels is in the surprising depths it manages to mine – both thematically and in terms of its characters.

The story itself is pretty wild when you consider that it's based closely on real-life events but put it up against the shenanigans of Ocean's 11, say, and it looks relatively tame. And the genius part is that the film itself – or, more specifically, its writer and director, Bart Layton – understands this. At its heart, American Animals is an exploration of how a bunch of kids raised on heist movies would react to the reality of actually pulling something like this off and what that says about certain values that are often placed at the heart of Western Civilization.

It's not exactly a critique of heist films so much as it is a look at the way that reality and art affect each other, in particular by looking at a genre that, in essence, glorifies a highly illegal and often dangerous activity. It's also not so boring as to simply play into the tired old trope of watching violent movies makes you a violent person but instead considers how art and life have a tendency to reflect back on each other in much the same way that two mirrors facing each other do.

Here we have a group of very typical college students, even archetypal college students, whose sense of entitlement, materialism and moral flexibility propels them to do something that looks almost infeasibly glamorous and fun in the movies but is notably less so in real life. At the same time, this is a heist film that, for the run-up to the heist at least, plays very much like all those films our protagonists are shown to be watching in preparation for what they're about to pull off. As such, even as we realize the unbelievable stupidity of having these young adults trying to apply movie cliches to real life, we are kind of right there with them in the sheer excitement of it all.

This despite the fact that the film never fails to make clear that this does indeed not end well and that it even – quite masterfully – even features the real-life people on whom the film is based talking both to the audience and their fictional counterparts; further breaking down the walls between reality and fiction. It's only when the heist goes, shall we say, messily that the realization dawns on both the characters and the audience that what we've been cheering on for three-quarters of the film is the conscience-free pursuit of unearned riches that may well result in our heroes in jail, others potentially being hurt by their actions and robbing the public of priceless cultural artefacts.

Layton, making his feature film début here after making a name for himself on various well- regarded documentaries, uses his experience as a documentary filmmaker in ways that are both obvious (interviewing the real people) and subtle (he brings a real documentarian's eye to the way the narrative, themes and people tie in together). He also proves to be an immediately reliable hand in terms of classic filmmaking. He gets great performances out of his cast of largely lesser-known actors – Evan Peter and Ann Dowd are as close to famous as you get here – and he brings real vibrancy and vitality to the story he's telling.

His best trick of all, though, is the masterful sense of balance he brings to the proceedings. American Animals is a film with a moral thesis at its heart but it's not moralistic, let alone preachy or sanctimonious. Layton is asking some real questions about Western values: what they are, what affect the “American Dream” of financial success and ruthless ambition has on them and how our art reflects on that and how we reflect our art. He doesn't, however, turn his film into a thinly veiled lecture and, just by the nature of the way he tells the story, he is clearly less interested in pointing fingers than in leaving a number of questions hanging for audiences to consider themselves.

And, most importantly, American Animals has something serious to say but it does so in a way that's both subtle and just terrifically entertaining – even when it stops being purely fun and, quite appropriately, but somewhat surprisingly (and, in retrospect, it's surprising that it's surprising), shifts its tone to something far more tense, melancholy and hard-hitting. Either way, it never stops working as a film; never stops being as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating; never loses sight of its characters and never fails to understand the value of some well-placed humour.

I had no expectations of the film going in but it's easily one of my favourites of the year so far. It will presumably only have a small theatrical release but it's a film you really don't want to miss.



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