Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bart Layton's AMERICAN ANIMALS: an original heist film w/charm, humor, suspense, sadness

When Bart Layton's The Imposter opened theatrically back in the summer of 2012, it caused a stir of sorts, mixing as it did both documentary and narrative tropes into a single very hybrid movie about identity theft, among other things. Despite a certain queasy-making factor, the movie mostly worked.

Now, six years later, Mr. Layton (shown below) is back again with another mix of narrative and documentary about a true-life tale -- the heist of some uber-valuable artwork/books by a quartet of naive-but-daring college kids. This one works even better.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (a name that doesn't really do full justice to the subject matter, while setting its audience up for something more violent/vicious than it should or could deliver) is a heist movie with heart, soul, sadness and lots of humor -- as well as the requisite amount of surprise and suspense. The ace up its (and Mr. Layton's) sleeve is that it very cleverly and successfully mixes the real people involved (a decade or more after the fact) with some very good actors who play these four kids in their college days.

The effect, rather than something startling or unbalancing, instead slowly gives additional credence to both the story and characters at hand. The fact that the real people here often contradict each other (sometimes even themselves) makes the story told seem somehow yet more truthful. (As we know by now, even eye-witnesses can get their facts wrong.) What the real people say, and how it jibes (or often doesn't) with what we see, adds welcome surprise and humor to the events, filling out these characters (the "acted" ones) with additional layers of reality and humanity.

Mr. Layton, as writer and director, also manages to include themes of class differences, economics and privilege into his scenario without ever belaboring his points. Overall, these add weight and sinew to characters and events so that we never lose sight of what's at stake, despite the ongoing fun and suspense of the heist itself.

There is also very little actual violence in the movie, and what there is is handled so well that it registers exceedingly strongly -- instead of hitting us like the repetitive and mindless violence-as-entertainment we're constantly confronted with via our super-hero and action movies. All this puts American Animals in a class by itself and makes it easy to forgive the film's occasional minor blunder -- such as placing a real character and his actor counterpart in a car together and then making so little or this that it seems merely a directorial stunt.

The cast of actors is first-rate -- Barry Keoghan (shown two and three photos above, of Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Evan Peters (above, and the standout here), Jared Abrhamson (shown at bottom, center) and Blake Jenner (below) -- with each individual doing a fine job of bringing to immediate life his character, sometimes with only minimal but pungent dialog.

In the supporting cast, it is Ann Dowd who (as usual) shines brightest as the unfortunate woman in charge of what is being stolen: a cache of John James Audubon's originals! Also on view and always fun to see is Udo Kier (below, right) as a possible fence for the upcoming stolen goods.

What makes the movie especially memorable is the manner in which it captures the craziness of youth in all its dumb glory, even as it offers the adventure of a good (well, maybe bad) heist, along with the sadness involved in lives gone so wrong for such silly (but understandable) reasons. Ah, kids: They just want to be special!

From The Orchard and running a long but never boring 116 minutes, American Animals --after opening on the coasts and maybe elsewhere -- hits South Florida tomorrow, June 22. In the Miami area, look for it at MDC's Tower Theater, AMC's Aventura 24 and Sunset Place 24, CMX's Brickell City Centre, and the O Cinema, Miami Beach. In Broward Country it will play AMC's Pompano Beach 18, Fort Lauderdale's Classic Gateway Theatre, and the Regal Sawgrass. In Palm Beach Country, see it at the Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, the Movies of Lake Worth, AMC's CityPlace 20, Cobb's Downtown at the Gardens, and AMC's Indian River 24. Wherever you live across the country, to find the theater(s) nearest you, simply click here.

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