***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout, some drug use, and brief crude/sexual material)
Released: June 22, 2018
Runtime: 116 minutes
Directed by: Bart Layton
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk

(You can listen to Charles Elmore and I discuss American Animals on Episode 9 of “The Bad and the Beautiful” podcast)

Millennial entitlement and desperation. When the two collide, and the former justifies the latter, you get American Animals.

And when you cross narrative filmmaking with the documentary format, you get an exciting new cinematic voice.

Based on a real-life art theft, American Animals is a bold reinvention of the true crime template that takes the popular genre to new, mesmerizing heights.

Much more than an experiment in style, the daring combination of a slick, nerve-wracking thriller with sobering, confessional interviews isn’t just an inspired angle from which to tell a real-life story; it causes us to contemplate these events, and these people, in a whole new provocative way.

In the early 2000s, four college-age young men in Kentucky decided that the quickest route to their American Dream was to steal valuable centuries-old texts and artwork from the Transylvania University archives in Lexington.

They drew up a scheme and planned it out in detail. Well, mostly. Sort of kind of. But not really. They were on a mission that was way over their heads, and deep down they knew it.

Director Bart Layton scripts, stages, and films a full-on adaptation of the heist like any normal filmmaker would, complete with four of today’s best up-and-coming young actors: Evan Peters – Quicksilver in the X:Men franchise, Barry KeoghanDunkirk, Blake JennerThe Edge of Seventeen, and relative newcomer Jared Abrahamson.

Then he intercuts that dramatization with on-camera commentary by the real would-be criminals: Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk. And in some of the film’s most surreal moments, the real people and their Hollywood alter egos share the screen.

It’s one of several ways that Layton uses this hybrid mashup to explore how illusory the “facts” can be. He gets at deeper truths, first about these events and people but then also a broader existential angst.

Robbers and thieves are nothing new, but the angst that Layton sees and examines in these young men is specific to a generation raised on being told that they’re different and unique. They’re affirmed as special, only to find out that maybe they’re not. Ironically, the humbling wake-up call that these men experience is a more liberating epiphany than those childhood platitudes.

A seasoned documentarian, Layton has been evolving toward this fiction/reality fusion his entire career (most notably in 2012’s shocking missing person tale The Imposter), but here it’s finally fully-formed. Both structures blend seamlessly, yet each could also stand on its own.

The documentary clips aren’t expository crutches for the narrative, and the narrative is much more than glorified re-enactments supporting the interviews. The testimonies give Layton’s dramatization a legitimate veracity.

As a piece, it’s profoundly illuminating – and exhilarating.

As a film, it’s a synthesis of auteur osmosis. On the surface, American Animals is a Soderbergh heist by way of Errol Morris, but other influences also emerge – Tarantino, Fincher, even Lynch – yet Layton isn’t stealing or cribbing. He’s a student of film that has allowed the styles of contemporary masters to inform and mold his own.

The end result is something new, in a movie that may be the first to truly soul-search the Millennial generation.

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