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American Animals: Young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in US history

American Animals (15)
Running time 1hr 56mins
Rating: ****

NINE times out of 10, heist movie protagonists have literally ‘nothing to lose’; quite unlike their true-life equivalents, these aren’t brutal career crims so much as they’re Joe Ordinaries and endearing rogues forced into high-stakes schemes by
circumstances totally beyond their control. With this in mind, American Animals feels like a real shock to the system, a masterful effort to deglamourise and demythologise the American crime thriller. Its ‘heroes’ (undoubtedly the wrong word) are a coterie of (mostly) well-adjusted students who – out of greed, anomie and, ultimately, a sense of ennui – resolve to steal the ultra-rare manuscripts housed within their college library (among them John James Audubon’s Birds of America). Remarkably (and regrettably), the caper actually happened; Bart Layton directs with a documentarian’s eye, cutting away to interrogate older incarnations of the film’s subjects. The result is a genuine nail-biter, I, Tonya meets The Social Network; without daring us to empathise (the tone is one of ice-cold detachment – fittingly enough, given the utter preposterousness of the heist), American Animals wills that we immerse ourselves fully in the action just as the talking heads remind us that, in reality, this affair came with very grim consequences.

The plot at the film’s centre was conceived as a juvenile ‘what-if’ scenario; even after mastermind Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and his associates have neutralised an innocent librarian (Ann Dowd) with a taser, it still feels more than a little unreal, the sort of shaggy-dog yarn a curmudgeon would concoct to make a hackneyed point about the gullibility of yoof. There is no great ‘break’ to speak of, no juncture in which the scheme leaves the drawing board and is suddenly, irreversibly dragged into the realm of reality, with all the ‘hard’ implications that would inevitably entail; it all plays out like a strange, frightening daydream. Far from shrewd tacticians or vulgar thugs, these kids appear to be lost – lost amid a pop culture-induced stupor, yes (they even create codenames for themselves à la Reservoir Dogs), but their judgement also seems to be clouded by dangerous delusions regarding both the feasibility of the operation and their own mortality. Spencer is something of an outcast; his friend Warren (Evan Peters) is a wildcard wholets his sporting prowess and his imagination get ahead of him, while the muscle they enlist to pull off the robbery are possessed of motives no less fatuous or impenetrable.

In taking on this improbable story, Layton has attempted a most delicate balancing act; for the most part, he carries it off triumphantly, delivering a true-crime vehicle that’s part-docudrama, part-cautionary tale and all-round thrill-ride. There are comic sections, but they’re executed with care and subtlety, the film never losing sight of the situation’s tragic dimensions (the tasered librarian has her say in a standout interview). It’s stylishly made, with some compelling photography serving to keep us firmly on the edge of our seats in the run-up to the heist, though this is the flair you’d expect of a Gus Van Sant or David Fincher movie, not one grounded in the Walmart banality of College Town America. Above all, it’s the Salingerian naivety emanated by Keoghan and Peters that will have people talking about American Animals for a long time to come. These boys were fools, but they were guided by the same entrepreneurial ‘rationality’, the same twisted idealism upon which Silicon Valley giants are founded. And that’s what makes the film so terrifying.

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