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Cinetopia review: True life heist caper 'American Animals' produces an exhilarating ride

Courtesy of The Orchard 


“American Animals” is a devilishly satisfying time at the movies.

Equal parts dramatization and real life, “Animals,” helmed by Bart Layton, details the strangely engulfing true story where a group of college kids (from Transylvania University circa 2003) are trying to pull off an improbable crime caper.

A story that seems so nuts, it has to be true.

The kids themselves are played by a quartet of well respected and believable performers. Evan Peters (Quicksilver in those “X-Men” films) is Warren Lipka, the ringleader behind the operation to steal priceless Audubon prints and rare books from their school's university. Then you'll notice Blake Jenner (from “Everybody Wants Some!!”) as Chas Allen, a beefy fella that is constantly pumping iron and the groups self-appointed getaway driver. Barry Keoghan - from “Dunkirk”- is Spencer Reinhard who mainly seems in it for the ride, although he constantly believes that some obstacle would thwart their plans and end their crime aspirations for good. And finally Jared Abrahamson, the most unknown of the four, tackles the role of Eric Borsuk who was inducted on the basis of his intelligence.

These may seem like your basic character archetypes, but what Layton's film does differently, is blend dramatization with documentary-style filmmaking. Not only does he feature interviews with the real culprits behind the crime throughout the film, he actually incorporates them into the movie with the actors playing them. For instance, one scene could feature Evan Peters playing Warren Lipka, while seated next to the real Warren Lipka. It's a narrative tactic that's strikingly effective and gives “American Animals” some creative flair while keeping the viewer tuned into the action. It all blends together so ceaselessly, you'll get lost in the films wide scope.

Layton's film is layered with rich textual fodder too and highlights the relationships these four have in common. At first, the movie instills confidence that these buffoons will be able to successfully roll out such a plan, then, as the movie progresses more and more, we see their true age start to show. It reminds the audience they're just kids after all.

At first, the plan seems simple enough - (and after their 'extensive' research into planning a heist: which includes watching a laundry list of film noir that ranges from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Heist” they feel like experts) – get in, subdue the librarian guarding the books (played here by the always reliable Ann Dowd) and get out before they're made. Their costumes are actually of higher quality, it sees the quartet covered head to toe in elderly garb complete with realistic facial hair. Totally unrecognizable.

Of course, everything doesn't go as planned and to reveal any more would be doing the film a great disservice. You should know, the heist itself is exhilarating. A classic third act shake-up which showcases twisted loose ends, and genuine, honest to god, tension to the point where my head was spinning. Come to think of it, that's probably the most fun I've had at a movie this year.

That's not to say it's right what these guys did, because you'll see along the way how their actions came with severe consequences. And Layton's film is able to juggle the comedic tone with the more serious issues on display (even managing to pull raw emotions from his subjects in moments that rendered me speechless).

At the end of all the chaos, we're reminded the grey area which exists in the story. “You just have to take my word for it,” one of the guys tells the audience when asked about the scrutiny of the events in question. It's easy for audiences to have that mentality while viewing the picture, but that's just another notch in the films expanding belt: the evolving mystery behind these characters. I'm not entirely sure what's true and what's fiction (and it's clear the filmmaker don't either). What I do know is “American Animals” offers exactly the type of bait and switch craziness that defines some of the more memorable heist capers in the last few years.

Hell, it's better then half of them.

Grade: A

'American Animals' will be released nationwide on June 22nd 

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