'American Animals': Sundance Review

By Fionnuala Halligan Chief Film Critic | Screen International, January 20, 2018 | Go to article overview

'American Animals': Sundance Review


Fionnuala Halligan Chief Film Critic, Screen International


Filmmaker Bart Layton turns a traditional heist narrative into a fascinating docu/drama hybrid

American Animals

Dir/scr: Bart Layton. UK-US 2018. 116mins

Writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) picks up the heist film and hurls it into new territory with American Animals, a supremely-crafted doc/fiction hybrid which is genuinely innovative, pleasingly entertaining and deliciously more than the sum of its parts.

It’s rare to see a film which genuinely breaks new ground, which is why the picture should be embraced with glee

A buzzed-about title in advance of its Sundance screening, American Animals will test the 2018 market; this is a film which will be desired by all and should play well on all levels - festival, theatrical, streaming - but at what price? A potential Point Break or Fight Club of its generation, it arrives in a different commercial landscape; it’s a game-changing film which demands the same in support to make the impact it deserves.

Craft is outstanding on all levels here; from the intricate jigsaw of the fact/fiction script through to acting, lighting, design and, most confidently, the edit. Layton and DoP Ole Bratt Birkeland frame a world which is both seductive and fraught as four middle-class college boys plan a theft from a Kentucky university library in 2004. Starting off as a fantasy, a film drama of their own making, it nudges itself ever-closer towards “crossing the line” into a reality where nobody knows what might lie on the other side.

Layton works on multiple levels: we have the testimony of the men today providing a counterpoint to the drama, which is often repeated from the differing perspectives of the principals involved. Actors Evan Peters (X-Men) and Barry Keoghan (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer) are a combustible combination as the two instigators of the heist, with their real-life characters Warren and Spencer providing commentary and recollections from the distance of today.

Warren is the “spice in the soup”, a college wild boy on a sports scholarship yearning for adventure. He’s the type of guy who has a cartoon tattoo of a T-Rex trying to switch on a ceiling fan; ridiculous, but funny and oddly compelling. Spencer, meanwhile, is an art student dismayed at the lack of any substantial drama in his life as he comes within hailing distance of adult reality in Lexington, Kentucky. Both have been told how special they are growing up but, like most of us, they’re not. …

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