With true crime in ascendance again its unsurprising someone chose to tell the story of American Animals. An elaborate art heist by rank amateurs who were little more than children when they decided to commit their crime sounds like a fascinating tale on the surface of it. Regrettably, when given the gold star treatment it becomes clear that the players and events are not nearly so interesting as the film would have you believe.
From the beginning, American Animals proclaims itself to be a true story and introduces us to the real people at the center of the events. Warren and Spencer (played by Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan) are friends and college boys with promising lives who feel like they are waiting for something big to happen. When Spencer gets the wild idea to steal his school’s collection of rare books the two become obsessed and begin planning how they could do it. After weeks of playful discussion, things grow more serious and they eventually commit wholeheartedly to the plan, going so far as to attempt to find a buyer for their ill-gotten gains.
We see a detailed chronology of the events, laying out every decision from the two boys casing the school’s library to determine the best ways in and out, to their journey to New York in hopes of connecting with a tenuous lead on a way to sell the books once they are obtained. Realizing they will be unable to pull it off on their own, they pull in two other boys to help them make the plan a reality, Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) to drive the get-away vehicle, and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) to handle logistics. From there the film develops into something halfway between a heist film and a crime documentary, as it flashes back and forth between the men narrating their memories and the reenactment scenes.
American Animals allows the original players to tell their tale while manipulating the filmed events to show every aspect of their perspective with lush cinematography. The actors are impeccable, doing their best to portray nuance that unceremoniously vanishes when the adult men who perpetrated the crime are discussing their actions. The events play out predictably and the most interesting elements to it are the scenes between Keoghan and Peters, who personify lost youth with a natural fluidity that rises above the selfish reality of the film to give it hints of a deeper meaning.
Unfortunately, when American Animals tries to dig down into that deeper meaning, presumably in an attempt to explore the reasoning behind these young men’s choices, it all rings hollow. None of them can produce reasons for their actions beyond pushing their own limits and seeing if they could succeed at their endeavor. In a society that is becoming aware of the inequality applied to crime with regards to race, the resolution of the story will feel particularly tone deaf, considering the supposed severity of the crime at hand. Ultimately, American Animals feels more appropriate to a Netflix special than a feature film and would have been more interesting had it included more facts and fewer reenactments.