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REVIEW — “American Animals”

Most of the time, execution is the most fundamental key when it comes to the distinction between a good film and a bad one. You can have the most generic of premises, some questionable dialogue and acting, or even rip-off a few things here and there – but if you can execute something in a way that’s new and exciting for the audience, then sometimes even the biggest of flaws can be forgiven. In the case of American Animals, a film that almost entirely rides off of its unique form of storytelling, it is absolutely elevated by director Bart Layton’s execution. The film is based on a true story about four college students who attempt to steal historic and valuable books from the library of Transylvania University back in 2004. Throughout, the film is spliced between traditional, narrative storytelling and interviews between the real-life men who explain how and why things went down the way they did. From beginning to end, it is an utterly fascinating watch.

It is already fairly fascinating to watch four vastly inexperienced college kids try to plan a heist and then actually begin to execute it. This is only elevated each time the film cuts back towards the interviews where we get to see and hear the regrets and conflicting perspectives from the real people. Even though it’s obvious that the heist goes down due to the interviews at hand, the entire film you’re waiting for one of the kids to snap out of this delusion and come to their senses – but they simply never do. This isn’t necessarily a hard watch in terms of its content, but seeing four kids plan out such a terrible idea with full confidence will truly make your skin crawl if bad decision making is a pet peeve of yours. Director Bart Layton does an excellent job at making every bit of stupidity and questionable decision made strike a nerve within you.

Aside from the fascinating interviews that are spliced throughout the film, the actual performances here are fairly solid as well. Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson are more than serviceable in their roles as two of the four men attempting the heist, and Ann Dowd and Udo Kier are two veteran actors that elevate their minor sections in the film and work well off of the younger actors. But Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan really get the most time to shine here and have the most compelling stories told throughout. Peters in particular has several moments to truly show off his chops – but a few in the third act come to mind where he is absolutely chilling with his performance.

The film slightly suffers from a rocky start-up in its first 10 minutes, but by the time the actual heist begins to play out on film, nearly all is forgiven. It is absolutely nail-biting and excellently portrayed, with each mistake and slip-up that occurs feeling like a gut-punch. By the time the film reaches its final moments, it does an incredibly solid job at coming full circle in a satisfying way that connects the film with the interviews. American Animals isn’t necessarily a perfect film, but the execution of its unique format is nearly perfect and that is almost all that matters in this case. From start to finish, director Bart Layton’s vision is the true star of this film and is what makes this such a compelling watch. 4/5.

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