Were it not for the real-life event upon which American Animals is based, it could have easily been a typical college comedy. Its deceptively simple setup – four in-over-their-heads students plan to rob their school – sounds more like a 2000s frat movie than the unique blend of genres it turns out to be. I stress the word “blend,” because the movie is simultaneously a breezy college comedy, a heist movie, and a stranger-than-fiction docudrama.
Our story begins with Spencer (Barry Keoghan) a bright but bored art student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Unsure about the future and full of onset adulthood angst, he finds some small release through his wild-eyed pal Warren (Evan Peters). Adventurous to the point of recklessness, Warren brings Spencer along for such escapades as stealing frozen meat from a local restaurant. After Spencer has a passing daydream about stealing a prized rare book from the university library’s collection, Warren takes the idea and runs with it. At first, Spencer is happy for the escape that the fantasy provides, but it isn’t long before the two are casing the library and bringing on accomplices in the form of fitness-bro Chas (Blake Jenner) and nerdy Erik (Jared Abrahamson).
The heist’s execution and consequences are matters of historical record, but the movie is nonetheless a masterclass in suspense, especially for those like myself who are unfamiliar with the source story. From the beginning, it’s painfully clear that the boys’ elaborate plan is doomed to fail in some way, but it’s the need to know how that keeps the audience glued to the screen. When the robbery finally does happen, it’s shown through a sequence that’s as nail-bitingly tense as any horror movie I’ve seen this year.
Despite mining train-wreck appeal from the spectacular failure of the boys’ plan, the movie also makes it easy to sympathize with these listless youths; and it’s hard not to get just as caught up in the heist’s sexy mystique as they are. The actors all deserve credit for embodying the real people they’re playing; leads Keoghan and Peters are especially compelling as the somewhat mismatched central duo. Documentary-style interviews with the real quartet of perpetrators, now in their 30s, pepper the main narrative section, never overpowering the story but adding real weight to the proceedings. The real-life Warren in particular is a natural in front of the camera, and it’s easy to see the devilish charm that Spencer was so drawn to. By the movie’s somber final act, these interludes provide some raw moments of human emotion, driving home the tragic reality born of an innocent fantasy.
A lesser movie might suffer whiplash from such a heavy shift in tone, but American Animals pulls it off with grace. The sudden but expertly telegraphed U-turn from the playfully mischievous first half to the hard-to-watch ending mirrors the way these boys were utterly blindsided by harsh reality. This is never more apparent in the movie’s final minutes, which wrap up the interviews and provide some where-are-they-now closure. It’s a stark departure from the undemanding fun of the movie’s first half, but it couldn’t feel more fitting.