American Animals

 

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A crime story of huge originality that then turns into something more familiar and less memorable.

   

American Animals

Barry Keoghan

  

This is a film of two distinct halves. The first pulls off the unexpected feat of telling a heist story in a unique and playful style. Its tone is set at once when the written on-screen statement that 'This is not based on a true story’ converts into 'This is a true story'. We have had films before that have lied about their authenticity so, when this one suddenly introduces its four leading characters - students planning to steal rare books from a university library - by showing them in later life and describing them as the real people, we don't know if we should believe it or not. After all, when these 'real' individuals offer their individual recollections of what they did, it is stressed that what each remembers can be different and, in one brief scene connected with their search for an experienced fence, two totally different-looking actors appear as the contact man to fit the contradictory descriptions being offered. Elsewhere there are jokes about Reservoir Dogs. Nevertheless, this engagingly fresh comic approach does not prevent the planning of the crime, including the realisation by the leaders, Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan), that they need to bring in two more accomplices (Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner), coming across in a way that not only intrigues but creates genuine tension too.

 

Peters and Keoghan in the two main roles (the latter so good too in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) are suitably contrasted and the supporting cast includes the ever reliable Ann Dowd as the librarian in charge of the books that are being targeted. Thus far, American Animals is as pleasingly offbeat as a genre tale as The Usual Suspects (1995) was in its own sphere. But then comes the second half. The repeated appearance of a written title for a particular section suggests that the humour is intact, but actually it isn't. By stressing that the planners are kids dissatisfied with life and on the lookout for something to transform their existence who then choose to bring this about themselves, the film courts the sympathy of a young audience especially and even invites identification (after all these youngsters are aiming at a non-violent crime against an institution). However, the belated realisation that the librarian will have to be put out of commission brings in uneasily an element of violence and the robbery plays out as a standard heist drama to be followed by moralistic scenes in the aftermath of the crime.

 

Thus, the second half of American Animals is transformed from the joys of its first hour or so into an over-extended and decidedly routine second half. There is much here that should be seen because its novelty means that it can be relished, but tiresomely that is followed by a great deal that simply disappoints. The change of style and tone defeat a work in which the originality is ultimately incompatible with the tale being told. Bart Layton is both writer and director so he must take all the praise and all the blame too. But, make no mistake about it, what is good is very, very good.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier, Lara Grice, Wayne Fuvall, Gary Basaraba, Whitney Goin, Jane McNeill.

 

Dir Bart Layton, Pro Katherine Butler, Poppy Dixon, Dimitri Doganis, Derrin Schlesinger and Mary Jane Skalski, Screenplay Bart Layton, Ph Ole Bratt Birkeland, Pro Des Scott Dougan, Ed Nick Fenton, Chris Gill and Julian Hart, Music Anne Nitikin, Costumes Jenny Eagan.

  
Film4/RAW/New Amsterdam Film Company-STX Entertainment.
117 mins. UK/USA. 2018. Rel: 7 September 2018. Cert. 15.