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June 08, 2018



For the first time since Quentin Tarantino reinvented the heist genre with “Reservoir Dogs” way back in 1992, a filmmaker has broken the whole thing wide open. With a handful of documentaries under his belt writer-director Bart Layton crafts a snappy docudrama rendition of a small-town heist at a university in Lexington Kentucky that finishes with appropriate grace notes of hubris and pathos. Bart Layton isn’t a household name, yet.

Layton uses interview clips with each of the real-life young men who schemed to steal rare books and manuscripts from Transylvania University’s library, as overseen by a lone librarian — one Betty Jean Gooch. A first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and four double-size folios of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” are on the would-be thieves’ shopping list.

American Animals1

We relish as the amateur heist team of college students assemble. Pals Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) watch a collection of heist movies ranging from Kubrick’s “The Killing” to “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Naturally, the guys gets colors for names. Warren names himself Mr. Yellow because he’s his mom’s “sunshine.”

American Animals2

No one wants to hurt the librarian, the only person guarding the university’s precious books, but pain must be inflicted. By the time the heist takes place, the suspense is gut-wrenching. Here is a thrilling caper movie that makes us empathize with the crooks and their victim in equal measure. By interviewing the real thieves, while dramatizing their story, Bart Layton adds a meaty layer of social realism to the film. Get out your knife and fork; this is one movie you can really sink your teeth into.

Warren Lipka - Evan Peters

Rated R. 116 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.


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