SXSW Film Review: American Animals (USA, 2018) is a masterful, original take on the heist & true crime genres

American Animals is the scripted film debut from writer/director Bart Layton, who walked away with a BAFTA for his debut effort, the documentary The Imposter. Knowing he comes from a documentary background is unsurprising when you see this film, which screened at Sundance earlier this year to a good deal of critical acclaim, and continued its festival run tonight at SXSW ahead of a US release in June.

The film blends real life interviews with dramatisations – often breaking the fourth wall, and reminiscent both of the recent I, Tonya and one of my favourite films of SXSW last year, Becoming Bond. You might also reference the many True Crime TV series. But at the same time it’s none of these things. And all of them. It’s a heist film. It’s true crime. It’s a documentary. It’s wholly original and it’s a lot of fun (but not without it’s sadder moments, too).

The film tells the (incredibly) true story of a group of college students who tried to emulate the movies and conduct an elaborate heist of their own. In their own words, they wanted to see what would actually happened, in the real world, if you tried to do it. In their case, the target are some very rare books from the Transylvania University in Kentucky. Of course, the real world is nothing like the movies, and nothing quite goes to plan.

The film blends together interviews with the real life culprits of the crime, and the team of four rising stars: Evan Peters (Quicksilver in the X-Men film series), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some, Glee) and Jared Abrahamson (Hello Destroyer), who dramatise the events. The quartet deliver well balanced, engaging and often masterful performances, well directed by the newcomer to the scripted feature.

Where the film strikes its true moments of genius is in the balance between the actor’s performances, and the quirky characters that live behind the story. They never quite tell their story straight, but sure make it an entertaining one – and as the director admitted in the post film Q&A, their stories led to constant re-writes of the script. One film that it will find itself compared to is I, Tonya – though both were of course made in complete isolation of each other. But both have narrators not to be trusted, a playfulness with the fourth wall, and often multiple sides to every story. But here, the way Layton manages to intertwine the real interviews with his screenplay is often masterful – and the transitions between the two are seamless.

Look out for some spectacular moments in the soundtrack, and some excellent cinematography – particularly in the film’s stylish opening sequence (of which no heist film would be complete without). The film is well paced for the majority, leading in well to the heist itself, while the music builds the tense nature of their crime beautifully. Even though you pretty much know the ending from the start, you can’t help but find yourself on the edge of your seat because of it, as you ask the question “just how far are they willing to go?”.

Some of the final scenes were a bit drawn out, and though I understand they were limiting the film to the perspective of the quartet, I felt there were some aspects to the story that could have been tackled – skipping out on how crime was solved may have been a missed opportunity for a comedic moment. But its absence is particularly understandable in context and tone, and at this point I’m just splitting hairs. This was a very, very good film.

There’s something of an interesting message the film leaves you with, too. The kids who tried to emulate the movies have, a decade or so later, become stars of a legitimately brilliant heist movie themselves. Take with that what you will – but from my point of view, if infamy isn’t the new version of the American Dream, I don’t know what is. Just don’t try this at home.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

American Animals opened the 2018 SXSW Film Festival tonight in Austin, Texas. It enjoys a cinematic release in the USA through The Orchard on June 1st. No word yet on an Australian release. Stay tuned for our interviews with the cast and crew and for more on ground action from SXSW.