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  • Writer's pictureGuy Jeffries

American Animals

Director: Bart Layton.

This is the questionable true story (I’ll come back to the “questionable” bit further on) of the Transy Book Heist carried out by four college students in 2003, Lexington, Kentucky; where they stole books worth millions of dollars from the Transylvania University Library. And I say millions by no means of exaggeration, as we’re talking about some of the most valuable books in America, most notably John James Audubon’s The Birds Of America and a volume of Charles Darwin’s Origin Of Species.

But this is not your standard issue heist movie, nor is it your standard true story or even your typical film. I can’t think of anything like it. It’s almost a dramatised documentary, perfectly woven with accounts from the real people involved. And these are not cameos either. They play integral parts to the storytelling which evoke a range of emotion from laughter to empathy. It’s a serious film. And take note, the trailer, gladly, doesn't do much justice, hiding much of it's style and structure so not to spoil the film.

This is amazingly crafted and bound together by director Bart Layton, who has an extensive background in making documentaries and his talent is so evidently shown here. He appears to effortlessly welded both, what is essentially a recreational drama with talking-head interviews, which is what makes this film so unique.

This unconventional structure does kinda spoil itself to a degree but the film isn’t really about what happened to these young men, or even how they did it; and instead, it focuses on the why, the reasons behind it, their motives and the emotional ramifications on all involved, especially the gang. This is what makes this film so real, so true, capturing their powerful moments of guilt, their impossible-to-hide shame and regret. You could almost forgive them for what they did in their act of stupidity.

It’s hard to describe how this film effected me, because it was something very real that I could, to some degree, relate to, and I believe a lot of how this film effects people will depend a lot on their own personal experiences. It really hones in on that pinnacle moment of uncertainly; and we’re not talking about what flavour crisps you have for lunch, or even where to spend your next holiday but that single moment, that threshold, that rhetoric line one might cross that’ll impact your life one way or another for the rest of your life, and there’s no going back.

What leads up to this, is the fun, the adrenal excitement, exploring the psyche of people who are gearing up to the that point of no return, the second thoughts and empowering speeches that encourage them to continue. It makes it possible to see why. You might laugh at moments that really shouldn’t be funny, though it’s obvious some of these snippets are meant to be, but the film quickly moves on to give you a visual slap for doing so.

Now let’s talk about the questionable truth. They haven’t picked just one version and decided this is the truth we’re gonna run with; they’ve instead capitalise on the possible inaccuracies, their own doubts and conflicting accounts, letting the audience decide what to believe. And this is what makes this the truest true story film you’re ever gonna see. It’s what makes this film so engaging beyond intriguing and at times quite funny with it.

The performances are outstanding, especially Evan Peters who plays the overly-casual, brash, fun-loving anarchist, Warren. But it’s done well, so not to totally push aside Keoghan, Abrahamson and Jenner. Keoghan plays Spencer, Warren’s contrasting opposite who’s level-headed yet curious and easily lead. This the first time I’ve seen Abrahamson, and knowing he’s a homegrown MMA fighter, I was impressed and look forward to seeing what else he can do. Jenner isn’t really in the film as much but each of them are given their own moments of greatness.

There’s a good amount of film references too, that’ll tickle most movie lovers; and we have to remind ourselves this is a true story from 2003, so it’s no joke that they actually gave themselves code names like Reservoir Dogs or coining Ghostbusters, though I’m pretty sure the extremely well choreographed, fantasy heist is the creative work of Layton and I wonder if it was intentional to reference Ocean’s 11 with it’s choice of JXL’s Elvis. Talking of music and Ocean’s 11...

Shamefully, I’ve not heard of Anne Nikitin until now, and her score here has impressed me greatly sounding off a diverse and interesting score that’s quite haunting most of the time. But there’s such a variety of contrasting themes here with some great use of a range of instruments. Mentioning Ocean’s 11 again, there’s one small track, “First Plans” that instantly hints of David Holmes’ “Pickpockets” from Ocean’s 11 but is still very much it’s own track. Other tracks reminded of something Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would compose. There’s also a great and equally diverse, accompanying soundtrack with tracks from The Doors, The Pharcyde, Ice Cube, Alt-J and Donovan plus many more. It’s one of the best joint scores and soundtracks of the year, and sadly I reckon is going to get easily overlooked.

Overall, it’s very original and creatively shot. It’s film-making and storytelling at its utmost best. It’s an absolute masterpiece and the truest true story you’re ever going to watch in more ways than one. Mr. Layton, if you can top this, I’ll be very keen to see how and with what. It’s a must-see and one of the best films I’ve seen not just this year, but this decade.

Running Time: 9

The Cast: 10

Performance: 10

Direction: 10

Story: 10

Script: 10

Creativity: 9

Soundtrack: 10

Job Description: 10

The Extra Bonus Point: 10 for an intriguing, unique and totally unexpected film that really evokes a range of emotions that's expertly put together. The truest true story.

98% 10/10

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