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"American Animals" Review

Considering how many movies have the word "American" in their titles - American Sniper, American Splendor, American Pastoral, American Made, American Assassin, American Pie in the past two decades alone - it would be understandable to glide right past American Animals (a reference to Charles Darwin's Origins of the Species) because it doesn't even hint at what it's about, but here's why you should check it out: It's an interesting hybrid of a docudrama, caper heist flick, AND documentary.

Based on an actual incident in 2004, it's the story of art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), who takes a tour of his college's (Transylvania University, which is in Lexington, KY, not Dracula's neck of Eastern Europe), rare book collection which includes some impressive items including first editions of John James Audubon's The Birds of America and Origin of the Species. Bored and seeking excitement and/or inspiration, he enlists childhood pal Warren Lipka (Evan Peters, American Horror Story, Quicksilver in the later X-Men movies) in developing a plan to heist the books and fence them in Amsterdam. 

Since the book collection is on the second floor of the university library in a secured room and can only be accessed by appointment with an employee present, they realize they will need more hands and they loop in friends Chas (Blake Jenner, Glee) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson, nothing you've heard of) as wheelman and lookout, respectively. After extensive planning, they make an attempt at the heist in old man makeup and clothes that look like an AARP-endorsed version of the Beastie Boys "Sabotage" video, aborting when there are too many people in the book room. However, they make a second run the next day which goes.....well, you'll see. 

Despite trying to take care in their planning, their sheer incompetence and general lack of killer criminal instincts become their undoing. Apparently it took the FBI weeks to apprehend this gang who couldn't steal straight, but it really should've taken them a couple of days if they actually left so many loaves of bread for law enforcement to follow back to those who dropped them.

Where American Animals elevates the caper flick game is the integration of the real perpetrators (and to a lesser extent their families) in documentary talking head interviews. At one point, when there are differing recollections of how an event transpired, a real person is placed on screen next to their re-enactor which also introduces an element of unreliable narration as the gang have Roshomon-like differences in what went down ranging from what color a scarf was to whether one member actually did what he claimed to have done.

While using actors to dramatize events is a standard move for everything from America's Most Wanted to documentaries including writer-director Bart Layton's previous film, The Imposter (about a con man who convinced a Texas family he was their long-lost son despite looking nothing like the missing boy, being much older, and having a French accent which is worth watching, too), American Animals inverts the ratio to make the real people commentators on the recreation. What could've been a cheesy gimmick works quite well and frankly could've been used more because they're charismatic and appealing fellows despite being felons. (In another odd wrinkle, the real people are actually mostly more attractive than their actors.)

 The pace gets a bit slack towards the end, but overall American Animals proves truth can be stranger than fiction and that sometimes fictionalizing true events is best served by having the real people narrating. For that alone, it's worth checking out.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.)


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