Wednesday, March 14, 2018

SXSW with Abe: American Animals

I’m so excited to be attending the film festival at South by Southwest for the first time, and I’ll be posting reviews throughout the week as I see as many movies as possible!

American Animals
Directed by Bart Layton
Festival Favorites

The line between fact and fiction can be blurred when adapted into cinema, with the appeal of more dramatic, suspenseful scenes often leading to the altering of history to enhance the audience experience. Telling the story in documentary form is the easiest way to present events as they happened, and occasional hybrids use actors to read what real people have said in interviews. One such film is “The Imposter,” about a con artist who pretended to be a long-lost teenager. While that film did not win over this reviewer, director Bart Layton’s follow-up effort, “American Animals,” succeeds wildly at straddling the line between dramatization and documentary.

Peters, Keoghan, Abrahamson, and Jenner star in the film

Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is a college student in Kentucky in 2004 who lives a comfortable life and aspires to be an artist. When he gets a tour of his university library and sees the collection of very rare books that lies within it, he mentions it to his less studious friend Warren (Evan Peters), who immediately latches on to the notion that they can pull off a heist and sell the items for a great deal of money. As they carefully plan their operation, they enlist Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) to complete the team that can manage this bold theft that will, more than anything, add some unparalleled excitement to their lives.

Director Bart Layton discusses the film

This film begins with the note “This is not based on a true story,” after which the middle words disappear to read “This is a true story.” All four of the actual people involved in the heist, as well as librarian BJ Gooch (played by Ann Dowd), appear in the film to introduce themselves and provide a glimpse of reality before their portrayers do most of the work. This allows for an incredibly introspective experience, with the perpetrators reflecting on what they did with the knowledge of how it all played out. It’s also used as a commentary on memory, as, in one scene, the real Warren is seen in a car sitting next to Peters telling him that, even though he doesn’t remember it happening that way, if Spencer does, “let’s go with it.”

The way in which this film is structured and edited make the planning of this relatively serious crime an entertaining, often hilarious experience. When it comes time to reenact the actual heist, however, the mood shifts to tense and enormously suspenseful, following an exceptional and invigorating opening scene to introduce the film’s plot. All five primary players are excellent, led by Peters channeling Warren’s wild energy and Keoghan providing a more muted, focused interpretation of Spencer, and the chance to see how the performances stack up with the people they’re playing is a unique and rewarding one. This film never lets up from start to finish, and it makes a strong case for this type of storytelling, recreating an unbelievably true tale with those involved there to help contribute.


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