American Animals breaks documentary, dramatization boundaries to reveal weight of regret

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Courtesy The Orchard

With American Animals, Bart Layton, the director of the profound documentary The Imposter (The Imposter is one mind-bending documentary), brings dramatization to the fore in a feature that includes the voices and faces of the individuals involved in the actual crime that inspired the movie. At first, it is not immediately apparent why this hybrid talking head/feature dramatization approach adds anything to a true story about a heist that goes off the rails. But as the film builds toward the consequences of the convicted criminals’ stories, it adds a layer of morality that could never be as deeply captured in a slice of tense entertainment only portrayed by actors.

The actors are all terrific performers (Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson). However it’s the real versions of these people, shot at a distance in medium shots, who frankly reveal the remorse and regret that never seems in sight in the drama of the hair-brained scheming of the act portrayed by the actors. The act being the 2004 heist of some of America’s most valuable books from the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. As the actors give the audience the adrenaline rush and suspense of the planning and committing of the heist, the real life people, most of whom were former students at the university with promising careers ahead of them, chime in with everything that reveals the human failings and weaknesses of how it all went wrong.

Courtesy The Orchard

From conflicting versions of details based on memory to the hubris of a plan steeped in ego and greed, it all builds to the empathetic regret of what they did to the poor librarian (played by Dowd) charged with the safekeeping of the books during library hours. Running on a smart classic rock soundtrack featuring songs by Leonard Cohen and Donovan paired with a sort of contrasting dark and bright cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland, the movie stands as one of the most intense action films of the year that doesn’t forget a sense of humor with its suspense. Even when you know the end result from the outset of the film, when the crime unfolds, featuring a Murphy’s law of falling dominoes, the scenes are as nerve wracking as anything you might see in a high octane action movie.

However, what raises American Animals to higher moral value is Layton’s original technique taken from his experience as a documentary filmmaker. Unlike action films designed for escapism, his movie does the opposite of glorifying these convicts. Consequences feel real because we are confronted by the faces behind them. Some of the subjects break down over how these actions ruined their lives, not to mention that of the librarian they were forced to confront to accomplish their crime. American Animals has reverberations of a Hitchcock film that shows how hard it is to really kill someone and beyond. It carries the weight of how hard it is to live with the soul-killing results of very bad decisions.

Hans Morgenstern

American Animals runs 116 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area Friday, June 22, in the following counties and theaters:

For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The Orchard sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2018 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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