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“American Animals” is a vibrant directorial showcase

You don’t often see filmmakers alternate between documentary and narrative fare. Most of the time, a director of docs sticks with nonfiction cinema, with the same being true on the flip side. Those who move between worlds are rare beasts, indeed. Even more so, documentarians who go narrative often end up with workmanlike projects. This week, the exact opposite is the case. American Animals is hitting theaters and it’s a stunningly good showcase for filmmaker Bart Layton’s talents. Once a hot doc maker because of The Imposter, now he just has to be considered a hot director in general. He’s certainly got the goods, going by this work.

This film is a heist drama/thriller, based on a true story. IMDb sets you up like so: “Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history.” Disaffected college students Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) are bored. Friends for years, they have a dissatisfaction with their lives, one that spurs them into periodic trouble. For the most part, Spencer is innocent, while Warren is a bad influence. Then, the idea springs up to rob Transylvania University of their rare books. Spencer dismisses it as a joke, but Warren talks him into it, almost as a lark at first. Then, they get serious, bringing on Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) for help. They think it’ll be just like the movies. Once they actually begin to make moves on the heist, it turns into anything but. Layton writes and directs, while the supporting players here include Ann Dowd, Wayne Duvall, Udo Kier, and more. Appearances are made, documentary style, but the real Allen, Borsuk, Lipka, and Reinhard, along with their families.

You really can tell that a documentarian made this movie. That’s a compliment too. The talking heads moments are cleverly done and work fully. The unreliable narration is amusing and actually important to the narrative. Things just come together really well. Layton takes already inherently interesting material and elevates it. To be sure, having the talented Keoghan and Peters on board helped, but he’s able to let the joy of movies and filmmaking jump off the screen throughout. If this is a calling card for whatever he does next, count me in. Layton could be our next great indie director, or better.

This isn’t necessarily the type of flick that makes a play for Academy Awards, but American Animals might be the sort of thing that the Independent Spirit Awards embrace. In particular, the Spirit Awards might have room for Layton somewhere. He certainly deserves it. Perhaps even Keoghan or Peters could find some love early on in the precursor season. Furthermore, this is a unique situation, in that it’s the first release involving MoviePass. Teamed with The Orchard here, MoviePass Ventures could be the next stage in that company’s evolution. If nothing else, that element will be interesting to follow, going forward.

On Friday, audiences can begin seeing what made the folks at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival so excited when American Animals comes out. It’s an engaging and kinetic heist flick, which is always fun to see. The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s quietly ambitious, and that counts for something. Layton especially deserves to have his vision seen. If this sort of film strikes your fancy, you’ll be in for a treat. Plus, fans of Keoghan’s turns in 2017 can see another interesting new performance. The same goes for Peters, who has been making fans left and right on the small screen. Their product here is top notch. Give it a look and you’ll see why…

Be sure to check out American Animals, opening in limited release this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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