IFFBoston Movie Review: ‘American Animals’

Directed by: Bart Layton

Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, and Ann Dowd

Plot: Four friends plot to rob a local college of some priceless art.


American Animals is so many things at once.

If nothing else it is a heist movie based on a true story, that of the 2004 Transylvania Treasures heist in Kentucky. It stars Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) as Spencer, a hopeful art student that is looking for his individual style. His best friend, Warren, is a local troublemaker, played by Evan Peters (X-Men’s Quicksilver), who steals the show with his roguish charm. The two starved for attention decide to rob Spencer’s college library, where some significantly valuable books are kept, specifically John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and a version of Darwin’s Origin of Species that features a typo.

Spencer and Warren are not exactly expert thieves, so it also sort of feels like a parody of a heist movie. Like it is mentioned in the movie, there aren’t any books on how to pull off a heist. So after they exhaust their rudimentary Google searches, they turn to their local video rental store for ideas. It leads to some great meta bits revolving around Reservoir Dogs and Ocean’s 11, to name a few. Normally, it would be a quite the balancing act keeping both the pure danger of the crime and the comedy of errors at equal heights, but director Layton pulls it off by connecting both tones to the characters’ inexperience.

The movie is also effectively a documentary about the event. The real life Spencer and Warren, their real life parents, and the real life librarian that they jump to get their hands on the books chime in from time to time to fill us in on context. They put a really human face to all the craziness, which some might confuse for sympathy. But when you have sympathetic reasons to do miserable means, it just makes things that much more tragic.

It is through their testimonials that we are exposed to a whole new avenue of subtext about their true motivation. They reveal a very dark side to exceptionalism (or lack thereof), a constant thirst for meaning. To just do something dangerous to say that they did. We are talking about two kids (plus the other two that they roped into this mess) who had promising but dull lives ahead of them so decided to rebel one more time in the biggest way they were capable of.

Ultimately, the heist would be thrilling, if it also wasn’t so desperate and cruel. Despite the sadness of the boys’ lives and their humorous attempts at being legit masterminds (one of which employs the use of old man makeup), reality sets in quickly in Laytons drama/documentary hybrid.

Rating: 8/10