Every year a few films quickly establish themselves as popular (and critical) darlings of the Sundance Film Festival. After its January 19th premiere, American Animals took a swaggering step forward as one of these favourites. The cocky heist film even secured an early distribution deal during the festival. While the film starts out with the brash and cocky flourishes of a young film-maker working at the top of his game, the movie soon gels into something interesting. While there is a lot going on in American Animals, it is the performances in the movie which ultimately sell it. At its roots, this is still a character drama.
American Animals follows the story of a botched 2004 robbery when four students held up the Special Collections Room of the Transylvania University Library. What were they looking for? Rare books. The heist film stars Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner. The film comes from writer-director Bart Layton.
What is perhaps most fascinating about American Animals is Layton’s clever melding of the fiction and documentary form to craft something entirely original. From the opening frames, the film stresses this is a true story. Fiction and reality repeatedly cross paths as the actual boys (now 15 years older) are interviewed on screen. The clips are inserted with a smart, almost winking eye at the audience. Layton uses the interviews to not only give perspective, but also to call the truth into question. There are repeated instances where the interviews directly contradict the on-screen events. Did something happen how Warren (Peters) remembers it? Or could it have happened the way Spencer (Keoghan) recalls? The combination of these factors creates a unique tone to the film. Thus, American Animals stands alone in a sea of often conventionally constructed narratives.
Furthermore, the film just feels… cool. American Animals is a fun film to watch. Layton easily brings a young, hip aesthetic to the movie, and it’s easy to just drop into it. It’s very much The Social Network meets Reservoir Dogs… and everything that implies. In fact, keep an eye out for some fun references to the Quentin Tarantino classic. Also, keep an eye out for a daydream montage in the middle of the film as the boys concoct their plans. The sequence, which is set to Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” is fun, upbeat and flawlessly crafted by Layton and editor Chris Gill.
Probably the biggest issue with American Animals felt like a slight pacing problem, particularly through the middle of the second act. The film brings a roughly two-hour runtime. There is a lot of build-up to the robbery in question. At a point in act two, the interesting and punchy editing flourishes are scaled back and we drop into a traditionally paced narrative. At this point, the movie slows down a bit. While this is noticeable due to how fast and edgy the film comes out of the gate, it doesn’t last long. Once the story crests the narrative hump leading to the conclusion, we see the story drop into some incredibly interesting character work.
Helming the film, Evan Peters is his traditionally excellent self. Best known to audiences as Quicksilver in the most recent X-Men films, some might also recognize the young actor from his ongoing stint in the American Horror Story franchise. Peters brings a tremendously complicated and often conflicted screen persona to his roles, and Warren is no different. The young actor covers wide ground with this character. While he is a notorious trouble-maker and appears to have some criminal tendencies, as the film continues, the cracks in his bad-boy persona show through. Suddenly, audiences see the glimmers of fear behind his well-crafted facade. Peters has proven himself an expert with similar roles, and a performance like this isn’t a surprise. He’s one of the most solid young actors working on film and television right now, and here’s hoping we keep seeing interesting work from him.
Props also must be given to actor Jared Abrahamson in the role of Eric. The boy quickly finds himself pulled into the heist as an accounting major with dreams of joining the FBI. The role is a challenging one. While he doesn’t have the outwardly emotional scenes of Charles’ (Jenner), Eric finds himself stuck in a bigger role in the heist than anticipated when Spencer begins to waver under the pressure. Abrahamson brings a quiet vulnerability to the role. This becomes increasingly pronounced as American Animals builds towards its conclusion. Abrahamson shows a powerful ability to emote, silently conveying the conflict his character struggles with. While Jared Abrahamson is not a newcomer to the screen (his IMDB lists credits dating back to 2009), this is a performance capable of propelling him to a new level. I will definitely be checking out more of his filmography in the future.
American Animals begins with an almost too-cool, overly cocky The Social Network meets Reservoir Dogs kind of vibe. However, the work the movie does with the narrative form is unique and definitely interesting to watch. Furthermore, the film’s appeal gels into the later acts as the characters complexities begin to show through. Director Bart Layton manages to capture deep and complicated performances from a group of talented, up-and-coming young actors. It is the chemistry between the group of boys which completely sells this film. If you like heist films, as well as innovative independent cinema, this is one to add to your list.
American Animals secured North American distribution during its festival run. Keep an eye out soon for further release information.