Empire (UK) - - PREVIEW - ian Freer

Di­rec­tor Bart lay­ton

cast Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abra­ham­son, Blake Jen­ner

plot Ken­tucky 2004. fol­low­ing a tour of his school’s rare book col­lec­tion, spencer (Keoghan) and pal War­ren (Peters) hatch a plot to steal the most valu­able items. With two new re­cruits (Abra­ham­son, Jen­ner), can they re­alise their au­da­cious plan? At the be­gin­ning of bart Lay­ton’s Amer­i­can An­i­mals we are cheek­ily told, “this is not based on a true story”, be­fore the words “not based on” are erased from the screen. Like Lay­ton’s call­ing card, The Im­poster, Amer­i­can An­i­mals has a ball with the ten­sion be­tween truth and fic­tion. grab­bing hold of a true story about four col­lege kids’ plot to steal rare books — chiefly John James Audubon’s Birds Of Amer­ica and Dar­win’s Ori­gin Of The Species — from a Ken­tucky univer­sity li­brary, Lay­ton fash­ions a know­ing, blis­ter­ing mix of heist flick and true-crime doc­u­men­tary, fizzing on film­mak­ing fire­works in the first half be­fore mor­ph­ing into some­thing more se­ri­ous and af­fect­ing as the stakes get higher.

if docu­d­rama is usu­ally driven by talk­ing heads il­lus­trated by dra­matic re­con­struc­tions, Amer­i­can An­i­mals switches things up and lets the drama dom­i­nate, in­ter­rupted by con­tra­dic­tions and con­tri­bu­tions from the real-life par­tic­i­pants. this doesn’t just mean the real-life play­ers com­ment­ing on the events, but also seam­lessly in­ter­act­ing with the ac­tion, even shar­ing scenes with their fic­tion­alised coun­ter­parts. it’s a film about the dy­namic be­tween ob­jec­tiv­ity and sub­jec­tiv­ity but wears this art­house con­ceit very lightly. Lay­ton blurs the lines of mem­ory and truth in in­creas­ingly play­ful ways, where the colour of a scarf takes on in­creas­ing sig­nif­i­cance.

When he gets to the nar­ra­tive por­tions, Lay­ton zips through clas­sic heist movie sce­nar­ios — the plan­ning, build­ing the team, find­ing a fence (Udo Kier) in Am­s­ter­dam — en­livened with cin­e­matic trick­ery, be it up­side-down track­ing shots or POVS from in­side search en­gines. it’s also a film alive to crime movie his­tory, from its crim­i­nals hold­ing their own heist movie fes­ti­val to call­ing each other by coloured mon­ick­ers (of course there’s an ar­gu­ment about Mr Pink) to a sly par­ody of Ocean’s 11 as they en­vis­age how the rob­bery might go down. this isn’t ref­er­enc­ing; it is, aptly enough, bla­tant steal­ing from the crime greats and hav­ing tons of fun with the stolen goods.

On the debit side, the film’s four crim­i­nals feel un­der­writ­ten — es­pe­cially late­com­ers eric (Abra­ham­son) and Chas (Jen­ner) — but get by on the per­for­mances; X-men’s Peters gives War­ren swag­ger and chutz­pah and Keoghan (the kid on Mark Ry­lance’s boat in Dunkirk) is the film’s soul­ful cen­tre as the wannabe artist who feels some­thing is miss­ing. Amer­i­can An­i­mals clearly makes the point that the crime isn’t driven by greed; it’s the prod­uct of a gen­er­a­tional malaise, of kids brought up to be­lieve they could achieve any­thing so have to go even fur­ther to feel spe­cial. As the moviemovie heist be­comes a re­al­ity, Lay­ton strips away the show-off­ness. You miss the en­ergy but its re­placed by some­thing more hu­man. by the end, Amer­i­can An­i­mals finds its truth. Or does it?

Ver­dict Amer­i­can An­i­mals is sharp, smart, of­ten bravura film­mak­ing, a ter­rif­i­cally en­ter­tain­ing mix of fast facts and pulp fic­tion. but be­neath the flash is a sad story of teens who feel their lives sim­ply aren’t good enough.

★★★★ OUT 7 Septem­ber CERT 15 / 117 mins

They never missed the chance to take ad­van­tage of a BO­GOF deal.

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