Tuesday 23 October 2018

American Animals 5 star movie review: 'Barry Keoghan mesmerises in thrilling heist flick'

5 stars

Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters in American Animals
Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters in American Animals

Chris Wasser

Now, here’s something special. In American Animals, Bart Layton’s bold and inventive crime caper, we are presented with an exquisite reconstruction of a real-life heist.

The story is simple: 14 years ago, four college students at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, decided it was a good idea to rob their college library. These naïve, opportunistic college boys had their sights set on a number of rare tomes, including a rather valuable edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. Long story short, it did not go according to plan.

The greatest thing about American Animals — and there are a lot of great things about this fine film — is its twitchy narrative. Basically, writer, director, and renowned documentarian, Bart Layton (The Imposter), has only gone and rounded up the real-life subjects at the heart of this strange tale, for a compelling, true-crime study that is as much gripping docu-drama as it is thrilling heist bonanza.

In one corner, we have the four convicted criminals: Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk, all providing a sort of tragi-comic commentary to their haphazard misadventures.

In the other, we have the actors who portray them, showing us how the entire fiasco went down, from the initial planning phase, right on through to the moment they were caught. Allow me to fill in the blanks.

It’s 2003, and a directionless, young art student named Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is struggling to find his groove at college. One night, after taking a tour of the library — and the valuable rarities on display — Spencer meets his friend, Warren (Evan Peters), and over a joint or two, the lads discuss how one might go about stealing the library’s prized possessions.

Spencer is kidding — but Warren… well, Warren is a bit of a loose cannon. Warren was once a promising soccer player, who landed an academic scholarship to study at TU. The only problem is, he’s no longer interested in soccer or academia. And after giving it some thought, he is now 100pc convinced that he and his buddy can pull off a heist.

A reluctant Spencer agrees to play along, and, eventually, the lads get serious. Spencer draws up the blueprints. Warren flies to Amsterdam for a meeting with some back-alley art dealers. Along the way, the boys decide that they need some extra manpower. Enter fellow students, Chas (Blake Jenner), who’ll drive the getaway car, and Eric (Jared Abrahamson), who’ll work out the rest of the logistics.

The one thing that unnerves them all — aside from landing themselves in federal prison, should it all go sideways — is what to do with special collections librarian, Betty (Ann Dowd). Will it all work out? What do you think?

This, right here, is the real deal. Working with a sharp, authentic script that snaps, crackles and pops in all the right places, and an exuberant cast that knows how to deliver it, Layton presents us with a riveting, often queasy, concoction of a thriller, that is as funny as it is unnerving.

These lads weren’t bad people — they were just stupid. There’s a difference, and Layton’s discomforting narrative proves it.

Read more: 'My whole aim has been to show my range' - Barry Keoghan talks 'American Animals' and 'Black 47'

The commentary is incredibly honest and brutal. The performances are note-perfect. Keoghan, in particular, is mesmerising. Make no mistake, Warren Lipka is the one that pushed his friends too far — and Evan Peters has an astonishing amount of fun getting to grips with this deeply unhinged individual. But it’s the increasingly watchable and increasingly magnetic. Keoghan (armed with a convincing American accent) leaves a mark as young Spencer, who, by all accounts, was the tortured conscience of the operation.

Elsewhere, the soundtrack is fabulous, the editing is phenomenal, and the extraordinarily unglamorous heist sequences are executed in a manner designed to turn your stomach to shreds. That is to say, this is one expertly crafted, bat-s**t crazy heist flick, and you know what else? It’s up there with the best of them.

Crime/Drama. Starring Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson. Director: Bart Layton. Cert: 15A

Also releasing this week: Black 47 movie review: 'Lance Daly’s Famine epic is an admirable attempt to go where no one has gone before'

Movie reviews: American Animals, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Nun 

'We got into week two and I was like, oh my God, what have I done?' - Lance Daly on directing Black 47 set during Famine 

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