American Animals director Bart Layton is a documentarian. A peep over at his IMDb page reveals that, despite a pretty extensive filmography, this is his first narrative feature. However, he brings his documentary skills to the table in an impressive way. And while it's something I haven't quite seen before, it's not quite enough.
The premise of American Animals is simple; best friends Spencer (played by the increasingly wonderful Barry Keoghan) and Warren (American Horror Story golden child Evan Peters), bored with their lily-white suburban lives at Transylvania University in Kentucky, set out to pull of an audacious art heist at their own school. It's equal parts The Social Network and Fight Club, but without the laser-sharp focus of either.
In an otherwise straightforward heist film, Layton through his documentarian eye, begins to warp the film by intercutting the narrative with interviews of the real-life felons. Not only that, the counterparts occasionally replace the actors with themselves. Through this, you're able to better understand character motivations, but the structure of the film never provides sufficient suspense, because it's predated on the spoiler that they're going to fail. Because while they're executing their clearly flawed heist, the real-life counterparts are talking directly to you about how stupid they really were.
Ultimately, American Animals doesn’t quite justify its runtime. The contributions of the real life counterparts, while technically impressive and quite entertaining, undercuts any momentum the film might have in telling its story. American Animals doesn't really have anything to say other than "Look at this, this happened. Don't do this."
Curiously, this is the first film released under the MoviePass Ventures label. Its parent company, MoviePass (the movie theater buffet service that can comfortably be described as ‘sketchy, but worth it’), purchased the film at Sundance earlier this year. Much like the heist that goes awry in American Animals, MoviePass is gaining traction as a stunt pulled on the whole industry. Personally, I’m very curious to see what effect its association with MoviePass has on the Box Office. Especially considering it’s not by any means a tentpole film that people would necessarily flock to the theaters to see opening weekend.
Simply put, American Animals is a movie to see with your MoviePass, but not much else.
American Animals - 3/5
American Animals is in theaters June 1st.