Review: American Animals

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

This review was originally part of our Sundance 2018 coverage

PLOT: The true story of the “Transy Book Heist”, where four Lexington, Kentucky university student stole rare books worth millions from their own college library.

REVIEW: AMERICAN ANIMALS marks the narrative directorial debut of documentarian Bart Layton. It’s a docu-drama with a twist. While the majority of the film is done as a straight-up feature, Layton occasionally cuts to interviews with the real participants, an interesting blend of documentary and narrative. Given that the story isn’t super well-known, it’s a risky bet, as it lets us know right from the start that the four boys all got caught and did jail time, with this giving us their take as they look back. There are even moments when the actors are shown taking cues from the real guys, which – although not unheard of (AMERICAN SPLENDOR did it first)- is unusual in a true crime tale.

While this could potentially lead to a conflict of interest in how the boys are depicted, it’s refreshing that Layton never tries to make what they did palatable. If anything, the one violent act they committed in their heist in lingered on, driving home just how cruel it was. Layton never asks you to like them or even identify with them, and it’s an intriguing gambit that pays off in very entertaining fashion.

The crime is instigated by Barry Keoghan’s Spencer Reinhard, a rich kid studying art who seemingly kicks off the crime in order to give himself some pathos, only to realize pretty fast how incapable he is in paying the moral and legal price for his actions. Keoghan’s been on a great run lately, following DUNKIRK and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, and his performance is riveting throughout, with his unusual appeal and inscrutability an interesting contrast to the more bland real-life Reinhard. Meanwhile, Evan Peters, as his wild-card best buddy, Warren Lipka, is uncanny how he channels his real-life inspiration, making their performances an intriguing contrast. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner have smaller roles as the extra hands they bring in as the planning goes on, while Ann Dowd bring empathy to a her small but pivotal part. Also look out for Udo Kier in a cameo in what’s clearly a case of deliberate casting to type.

Through it all, Layton does an excellent job shifting tone, with it starting-off as an almost comic caper, with the prepping limited to the boys hitting Blockbuster for copies of THE KILLING and THIEF, with a peppy song score making the stakes feel low. But, as it goes on Layton slowly but surely darkens the mood, with the heist growing more complicated by the second as it goes on, and the boys being forced at every turn to make compromises that put them further and further down a path they won’t be able to come back from – nor should they.

It’s interesting that AMERICAN ANIMALS is one of the few movies in recent memory where I didn’t feel the leads had to be likable. The fact that this is a quasi-doc is what I think makes this aspect work, and it’s a really fresh take that I could see a lot of people copying if this catches on. It certainly deserves to, and to me it’s an early highlight of the festival, and one I’m sure readers of this site will want to keep an eye out for.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.