Review: American Animals

argues that this true story is better and stranger than fiction

Image: The Orchard

9/10

Director: Bart Layton

Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson

Length: 1h 56m

Rating: 15

It is no secret that plenty of films are based on real events or real people. Recent ones such as The Greatest Showman have been widely criticised for portraying a “reality” which could not be further away from the actual facts. A few years back, David McCandles broke down 14 popular, Oscar-nominated films “based on a true story” and found out that films such as The Imitation Gamehad as little as 18.6% accuracy, whilst Selma achieved 81.4%. But, can a film portray facts just as they happened? Barry Layton has gotten very close to achieving this with his latest film. 

American Animals is a crime docu-drama about a group of college students who attempted to steal $12M worth of rare books from Transylvania University in Kentucky in 2004. Although based on real events, the film claims that “this is NOT BASED ON a true story” on the very first frame, only to lose the “not based on” seconds later. Based solely on the trailer, however, one would be inclined to think that this is, in fact, just a filmic version of something that happened in real life – which is why it comes as a surprise when after five minutes of watching Spencer (Barry Keoghan)’s flashback, it changes to a talking-head interview with the real-life Spencer Reinhard who completes Keoghan’s sentence.

The plot moves fast, and for the largest part of the film it does keep the cinema’s audience laughing. And as we see the interviews intercut with the dramatisation, it is easy wonder whether the crime was actually committed, as it seems like the characters are about to back away at any time. But all the main characters of this film share the same desire: they want to be larger than life – they can’t give up. So what better way to do this than steal really expensive books? As with most heist films, this one also spends most of its screen-time recruiting people, planning the robbery, and so on – but the characters of this film are nowhere near as clever as the likes of Danny Oceans’ crew. These characters are absolutely relatable, flawed college boys with believable character arcs, fears, ambition, insecurities… The actors also make an extraordinary job at portraying them. One could even say they are too real for being stock heist characters – and it is because they are.

These characters are absolutely relatable, flawed college boys with believable character arcs, fears, ambition, insecurities…

The film gathers the best of both fiction and reality and merges them together, creating seamless transitions, and leaving place for questioning what reality is. One of the most important points of the film is the conflicting accounts on how things took place. Through interviews, we learn that Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard had their first conversation about the heist in a pub. Or was it in a car? In this regard, the film is self-aware, and draws upon the fact that, no matter how hard it tries, it will never be 100% accurate. It constantly plays with a concept known as the Mandela Effect, in which people tend to remember the same thing happening in a different way. The editing on this part is brilliant, constantly switching between the characters having the conversation in the car, pub, and completing it with commentary by the real people – and of course keeping the audience at the edge of their seat.

Some people like documentaries, some others prefer fiction – this film offers both. American Animals is an extraordinary, gripping, and entertaining watch with great performances which exceeds expectations – and it definitely lives up to Mark Twain’s saying: “truth is stranger than fiction…”

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