Gather around all you who were upset that Ocean’s 8 featured too little conflicts and difficulties to overcome in its tackling of its internal heist, for American Animal is the exact opposite. For the robbery committed within is far from smooth, much tenser, and features actual conflict between the characters. Set in the present and in 2003, it’s a retelling of an actual heist of books from a campus library in Lexington Kentucky (at the preposterously named, though real Transylvania University).
It blends interviews with the actual participants, their family, and one of their teachers with a more traditional fiction narrative starring Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters. It’s highly reminiscent in this way and many others of I, Tonya and it is incredibly tempting to just point to that review and say that this is just a better executed version of it. It even includes the unreliable storytelling of that film where they show the events from multiple angles, this time here doing it more than just once (they do it like two or three times). By not recreating the interviews with actors, it creates a far more compelling subject and one that never devolves into parody. It helps that they lucked out with a group of engaging, mostly intelligent subjects, but in also cutting down severely on the narration, it fixed so many of the issues I had with that film.
Keoghan is an artist seeking inspiration because his life has been too easy while Peters is the token bad influence (though not nearly as bad as most examples) looking for more out of life, they see the heist as an escape, the money almost a tangential part. Which I know sounds tedious and the movie threatens to become that at times, but that is really where the reality helps, as it is very clear they did a Bad Thing and the film never glorifies it as a means for self-fulfillment. They are glory seekers in over their heads who get their knowledge from films and when push comes to shove, make stupid mistake after stupid mistake.
Directed by The Imposter‘s Bart Layton, it’s all well shot and as stated before very tense when it comes to the heist and accompanying scenes. The actors likewise do well enough including Ann Dowd in a small but pivotal role. The film is overloaded with licensed music (granted it is good music) which is occasionally too on the nose, but at least they didn’t pull the old Greatest Hits of 2003 (or even use the music of 2003) trick.
The film is a solid, well-crafted film that while it may have trod heavily over the typical beats of the heist and true crime genres, still exceeded my expectations. It doesn’t do much to stand out from the pack and the documentary bits can still mess with the pacing and flow as it did in I, Tonya, but the characters and the story are compelling while the presentation is nicely done. It’s all I can ask for out of this type of film.