Sundance 2018: American Animals is a Gripping Heist with Real Consequence

American Animals premiered at Sundance and lived up to the pre-festival chatter. Seeing Danny Ocean mastermind a Las Vegas casino job is engrossing, but this film has a realism that drips with anxiety. In American Animals, four young men came up with a very bad idea that goes horribly wrong. And it worked.

The plan was to lift priceless books from a low security university library, purely for the thrill. Director Barry Layton shatters any hope of keeping any comfortable emotional distance. He introduces the real counterparts to the characters played by Evan Peters (American Horror Story), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Jared Abrahamson (Fear the Walking Dead), and Blake Jenner (Glee).

As characters, the four men tick boxes you don’t normally get out of a heist film. There’s the free spirit, the sensitive artist, the intelligent loner, and the jock—these are not your experts in the various intricacies of major theft. They’re all painted with such interesting colors that their antics are hilarious. The men initially reflect jokingly and regretfully on what seemed like a typical silly college mistake. It’s so funny, until it’s not.

As the drama unfolds, the boys reflect on their motives, friendships, and drive to find a spark in life. The events of American Animals occurred in 2004, predating the social media boom. “It’s really about the pressure to live a so called ‘special life’ that is your right,” Layton said in the audience Q&A. “There’s a sort of metric for your place in the world. How valuable are you? How many people are following you? How many people are listening and looking at you? This is the identity they were in search of, but in all the wrong places.”

Each player has his own account of the events, but one thing they all have in common is a romanticized expectation of the heist. A fantasy sequence that’s one of the most brilliant scenes in the film shows the men nearly dancing through the well-orchestrated robbery. Needless to say, it’s staunchly different from the end result.

As the fraternal debauchery unfolds, moral signposts come into view. At the center of the heist is a librarian played by Ann Dowd (Handmaid’s Tale). She has a gravitas that nearly derails the plan and puts a fine point on the serious consequences of getting carried away with an idea.

We’re catching up with the cast and composer later today. Check back for more on American Animals.


Kelle Long

Kelle has written about film and TV for The Credits since 2016. Follow her on Twitter @molaitdc for interviews with really cool film and TV artists and only occasional outbursts about Broadway, tennis, and country music. Please no talking or texting during the movie. Unless it is a musical, then sing along loudly.