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American Animals review - true crime in a whole new light

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Verdict: Bart Layton's new crime drama American Animals takes an innovative approach to the genre and the idea of truth, with some dazzling performances from its main cast.

“This is not based on a true story. This is a true story.”

Four average students plan and carry out a grand-scale heist of a twelve-million-dollar book from their college library. Despite sounding like a story conjured up in someone’s imagination, American Animals’ shocking plot is all too real for Warren, Spencer, Chas and Erik, who, after their desire for excitement spirals out of control, are forced to face reality. As the opening lines suggest, this story is their truth.

Writer/director Bart Layton makes a strong statement with the film’s opening lines; one that appears to challenge the creative license many ‘true life’ films are infamous for taking advantage of. In just a few words, American Animals establishes a level of self-awareness and an understanding of truth significantly more profound than many films of its type.

Told through four perspectives, the subjective nature of truth is broached. Each character has a different recollection of events and, as the film progresses, the real-life counterparts begin to question how far their own version of the truth has been influenced by the others'.

Using both reconstruction and interviews, the director transitions so effortlessly between documentary and fiction styles that, like in the story itself, the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred. This, in turn, only highlights the notion that truth is formed rather than simply coming to existence.

The combination of these varying perspectives and modes of storytelling could have created an overly complex narrative but, due to the meticulous organization of events, the film remains highly coherent.

What this in fact provides is a fresh uniqueness to the crime drama genre. Although remaining as exciting and tense as fans of the genre would expect, the film finds a niche in its style that comes as a result of the presence of the real Warren, Spencer, Chas and Erik alongside the actors portraying them.

Although no direct interaction takes place (aside for in one scene), it feels as though the characters are talking to their real-life muse throughout and acting accordingly. The result is four electrifying performances from Peters, Keoghan, Jenner and Abrahamson.

The actors are captivating on screen together. Every heightened emotion is palpable, and, despite their wrong doings, there remains a great level of empathy towards the boys. Whilst each of them has a different degree of involvement with the heist, it is clear that they are not completely immoral. Rather, they are simply four schoolkids caught up in a fantasy-turned-nightmare.

The film comes together at a calculated pace, one that starts off as slow as the life Spencer wants to change but accelerates, until reality catches up with it.

As the film comes to an end, viewers are posed one final angle of the truth as the real-life Warren claims they’ll have to take his word for it.

An electrifying and tense journey, American Animals is an innovative approach to the true-life crime drama. Clearly influenced by his documentary filmmaking roots, director Bart Layton effortlessly blends filmic styles, filling a niche the genre didn’t know it had and making for an unmissable viewing experience.

American Animals is out now, distributed by The Orchard.

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