American Animals is based on the true story of two college students from Lexington, Kentucky named Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters). Despite them having a somewhat tranquil lifestyle in middle-class suburbia, they still yearn for something more. They eventually come up with a scheme to live the American Dream by stealing valuable old books from the library of Transylvania University. They also enlist the help of accounting major Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness junkie Chas Allen (Blake Jenner). But as the four men plan the robbery, it eventually leads to a downfall that will shape their lives in ways they didn’t intend.
When the film first opens, it seems like we’re in for a heavy, haunting docudrama. The ominous score and a montage of paintings with predatory animals killing prey make it seem like American Animals is going to be packed with ferocious bite. However, things take a quick turn once the movie demonstrates a mockumentary tone in the vein of I, Tonya. Its constant breaking of the fourth wall and interviews with those close to the four students do add slight jocular flair. Yet, the tone still ends up being a slight detriment. Because the movie aims dark at first before becoming darkly comical, it ends up having a minor identity crisis.
That being said, there is still something profound being told by this biopic. It depicts two young adults being flustered by their upbringing and the possibility of being trapped by their mundane surroundings. However, the film does tell us that the upbringing that we have is what we make of it. If you hate where you live, do you stay and be miserable or come up with a way to break free from it? We can’t control where we were born or where we were raised. But it is possible to take control of our destiny. Sadly, these four students chose to channel their frustrations in a negative manner. If anything, the movie serves as a reminder to those of us who have the rest of their lives ahead of us that whatever plans we have for the future will fall into place when they're meant to. We shouldn't rush our aspirations. Otherwise, life may hit us as fast as it hit the four men while they were young adults.
As for the actors playing the four students, they do an exemplary job. Barry Keoghan does a complete 180 from his breakthrough performances in both Dunkirk and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, playing Spencer as both a moral center and comedic straight man. Evan Peters matches him tit for tat as the more unhinged yet charismatic Warren. Peters also gets to deliver a monologue about feeling like a disappointment and his disillusionment with those around him that will probably stick in my mind for quite some time. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do fine work as well even if their characters aren’t as well-developed. But it’s Keoghan and Peters that are the film’s center.
Aside from its conflicting tonal shifts, American Animals still manages to be a successful depiction of the problematic pursuit of the American Dream. It’s incredibly well-acted and features insightful storytelling. This is one that shouldn’t be missed.
American Animals opens June 1 in New York at Regal Union Square Expanding Nationwide on June 8