American Animals mixes a well-directed and -acted dramatization of a true crime with interviews of the actual perpetrators. These snippets are added to flesh out what the narrative already does and, in a way, only serves to exonerate them. This is not like an Errol Morris film, aiming to understand higher themes through multiple angles, or even a modern podcast like Serial, that interrogates true crime to find undiscovered truths buried beneath the surface. It is, first and foremost, a thriller with a garnish of human interest. It does try to be those aforementioned things, in bursts, but those small moments only highlight its flawed structure. When it focuses on the misguided heist movie it clearly wants to be, it excels, but it just never commits to the narrative device that would otherwise set it apart.
Warren (Evan Peters), Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Chas (Blake Jenner) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson) are four white college students at Transylvania University from relatively well-off families. Spencer’s lost and Warren’s a wild child (far darker, in the fiction portions, than his real-life counterpart seems to be). The two hatch a plan to, essentially, find some kind of meaning in their lives: To them, it means stealing rare books from the school library and fencing them to an art dealer in Europe. The fiction track of the story shows them breaking bad, making a plan and then attempting their crime. It’s straightforward, well-acted and, aside from some obvious needle-drops, pretty entertaining. Throughout the story, we get bits of the real men explaining themselves, what they were doing at that particular point in their story and why they felt the way they did. The problem is that these are emotions mostly conveyed in the fiction story and not necessarily worth expanding on with documentary footage.
The movie almost taps into something special when writer / director Bart Layton uses the documentary bits to allow events to fuzz: Each man remembers their plans differently, with conflicting accounts of who planned what, how and why. The unfortunate reality is that the movie forgets about the real people and that relativity once the heist gets going, waiting until the fun is through to make a point. It should’ve held onto those conflicting elements more tightly as the action heated up. At the end, the film questions whether our subjects are unreliable narrators but it doesn’t really matter because the meat of the movie’s premise is fairly direct.
In essence, American Animals is about a bunch of bored kids from pretty decent backgrounds who watch a bunch of heist movies and think it would be fun to try it themselves. The question of “Why?” is asked but not explored in much depth. Maybe there isn’t a lot of depth to: “These guys were bored and had never suffered consequences,” but like other movies that try to derive entertainment from bad boys “being boys,” it never looks inward enough to earn its ending. Despite two hours spent on and off with the real people, we learn through pre-credits captions what all four of them are doing now. One is back in school; one is an artist; one is a filmmaker; one is a fitness trainer. Seven years in prison and none of them seems to have suffered.
They regret their crimes. They’re starring in a movie about them – a movie that gives them the significance they craved by dramatizing them in a sympathetic way. During their planning sequences, the boys watch classic heist movies and even take on the classic color monikers from Reservoir Dogs. Isn’t the classic adage “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt”? Well, the one person who does get hurt is the librarian tied down and assaulted when the heist goes awry (because they ultimately half-ass it). She’s introduced as a real person at the very end of the movie, where she asks what would drive people to hurt another person. Although the men are depicted as immediately remorseful in the fiction bits, and express (probably genuine) remorse in the documentary portions, they’re still starring in a movie that hopes to belong on the rental list for other fans of heist movies someday. Slick, engaging, funny when it has to be — but completely disinterested in reckoning with itself as a positive end result for these men’s crimes.
As a thriller about a mishandled heist, American Animals becomes quite a lot of fun in the third act. But it so desperately wants to be more. Hints of untapped thematic weight haunt the movie, which ultimately feels like a dirty mess excited by the facade of truth but with no interest in reckoning with it.