The heist movie has been fundamental to American cinema as long as there’s been American cinema. Only the Western, which heist movies share much of its DNA with, is arguably more fundamental to the past century or so of the celluloid that makes up our shared cultural history.
Though with anything archetypal, it can become mundane, reduced down to a mindless trope facilitated to prop up subpar storytelling. However, this is not the case with American Animals.
It’s perhaps fitting that American Animals takes an almost meta approach when telling the story of a quartet of college kids who plot the theft of a handful of rare books from the library of Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. They’re driven by an almost innate desire that seems fueled — at least partly — by heist films. During their planning, they envision the robbery happening like a cinematically stylized endeavor, and even tip their hat to a key moment in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
As they get increasingly caught up in the whirlwind of their own heist fantasies, the film brings in the four real-life men who inspired the story. I’ll admit, it was a decision I wasn’t totally on board with at first, seeing it as too much blurring of the lines between a documentary and fictionalized filmmaking. But as they found new and unexpected ways to work them into the fabric of the story, it proved to be an essential part in understanding who these characters were, and why they did what they did.
It also explored how each of the characters, particularly Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan), recalled the events, tinkering with moments throughout the film as their real-life counterparts each tell their own version of the story.
This also brings into play the real weight to the consequences of their actions, and not just in regards to the law and order aspect. As the film progresses, we see these four characters lose a part of their humanity, which is in turn reflected upon by those who lived through the events. It was a bold, and wholly innovative, decision by writer/director Bart Layton.
It’s through all of these elements that American Animals is able to stand apart from the heist films that not only inspired it, but also the robbery itself. The film never really looks for a motivation because ultimately there didn’t seem to be one, besides the intangible notion that by taking part, it would create some purpose to their lives that wasn’t there otherwise. And ultimately, it goes well beyond mere self-referential cinema, creating an engaging experience that is unlike any other.