When thinking of heist films, you normally imagine Danny Ocean (George Clooney) with his smooth and effortless style and flawless planning. He is personable and likeable, and thus being a con artist and thief comes off as an admirable profession which can be mistaken as a viable career option. But the reality is that crime, no matter how big or small, is dirty, seedy and in no way, shape, or form, glamorous. Director Bart Layton, who wowed audiences with his 2012 documentary The Imposter, has returned to screens with his follow-up, the crime drama American Animals.

Layton wrote the film's script and is based on true events. American Animals is about a dubious heist which took place on a college campus in broad daylight, and it focuses on the four students who planned and executed it. Animals co-stars Even Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen) and Jared Abrahamson. They play Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk, respectively, and Layton tells this story in a unique way. Layton delivers American Animals as a crime drama mixed in with interviews and testimonials from the actors’ real-life counterparts, meaning viewers will see Peters as Warren, and then Layton will cut to the real Warren as he comments on the scenes as it unfolds. It allows for multiple points of view and slyly clouds fact from fiction. You will understand what I mean as Animals progresses, and early on Layton quietly admits as much with a simple title card.

Knowing that, Animals plays out as a retelling of events preceeding, during and after the crime – how Spencer, a student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, learned about these priceless books on display at the school’s library; how he confided in his only friend, Warren, about the books; how they devised the plan to steal the books; and how they brought in Eric and Chas to help execute their plan. Mixed in are trips to New York City and Amsterdam to meet potential buyers, the excitement felt while planning and the tension felt during and after the crime. Throughout, Animals has an exciting but anxious tone which is topped off with a memorable score, and it all makes for an interesting feature.

With his latest, Layton is able to comment on the seriousness of crime and the sense of entitlement, and uses those to comment on the differences between working hard to make the American dream a reality and simply cheating to get to the proverbial finish line. The first two acts build up the notion the heist will be easy and fun, and that accomplishing this task will bring about financial security and personal accomplishment. But during the final act Layton unleashes some undeniable truths which prove to be more overwhelming than Warren, Spencer, Eric and Chas anticipated. To further cement the contrasts, there are scenes in which the four reference films (and themselves) like Reservoir Dogs, and Layton injects a scene that simultaneously pays tribute to and mocks Ocean’s 11.

Most importantly, Layton expertly depicts the young men (a testament to the strong acting from Peters, Keoghan, Jenner and Abrahamson) as spoiled and unlikeable while the real-life counterparts come off as remorseful, accessible and relatable. But Barton is able to keep a modicum of doubt as to their sincerity because their memories and perspectives factor in greatly during the interviews.

American Animals is a stunning portrait of today’s America as it presents an extreme example of how some people, despite a myriad of desirable opportunities, would rather cheat and steal to achieve success. It also highlights the notion of wanting to live a full life and how turning to crime can be mistaken for doing so. With a compelling script, a fresh storytelling perspective and memorable performances, Layton’s latest is an excellent watch that is riveting as both a cautionary tale and searing crime saga.

4 stars out of 5

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