by Ian Morton
The heist movie is a common staple of the cinematic landscape. Whether stealing a priceless piece of art, pillaging the unbreakable vault or looting the jewellery box of an eccentric billionaire, it’s a genre that has the potential to earn a lot of money from the smallest of budgets.Often boasting a gang of lovable rogues and underpinned by intelligent storytelling, it’s a format that is forever being remade, rebooted and reimagined.
American Animals is a heist movie with a twist. Based on a true story, the plot follows a group of students as they attempt to steal a priceless set of books from the Transylvania University Library. The twist – our rogues know nothing about being thieves.
Told from the juxtaposed memories of the lead perpetrators, the story balances an intriguing narrative with candid interviews from the characters ‘real’ counterparts. With a background rooted in documentaries, it’s here that writer/director Bart Layton thrives as he pieces together an intriguing story while at the same time injecting the film with a courageous sense of humanity. In a sense, this approach feels much more grounded than many others in the genre, with the result being a series of characters that you find yourself empathizing with rather than scorning.
Stylistically, American Animals isn’t too far away from the Oscar nominated hit, The Big Short. Quick edits and a well placed sense of humour are integral to the way the story is told, setting the tone early and subsequently using it to carry you through some of the films baggage. It’s a great way to tell a story that can often feel a little cliche, further setting it apart from the crowd.
Its real genius however is when it’s taking advantage of the teams inexperience. A consistent series of in-genre references create some of the best scenes and see the film evolve from adaptation to clever parody. While frustratingly not capitalizing on this quite as much as it could have, the subtle flecks from classics such as Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job give the audience an idea of the films roots as well as well as what it’s trying to be.
As a whole, American Animals thrives by taking advantage of its inexperience. Sure, it has some issues but they are easily overcome by the time the credits role. It’s funny in the right places and poignant when its needs to be – a true heist movie with a twist.