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Jared Abrahamson, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner and Barry Keoghan in American Animals.

  • American Animals
  • Written and directed by: Bart Layton
  • Starring: Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters
  • Classification: 14A; 116 minutes

rating

The heist film offers an irresistible recipe for filmmakers. Take a handful of character actors, add one or two fake-out twists, a pinch of tension, and a dash of moxie, and voila: You have a half-decent, totally watchable movie. Bart Layton’s American Animals takes those well-worn genre instructions – already exploited this year to varying results with Ocean’s 8, Den of Thieves, and The Hurricane Heist – and adds his own come-from-nowhere surprise: documentary footage. About 75 per cent of American Animals features a cast of recognizable young actors (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan, X-Men’s Evan Peters) playing a group of young ne’er-do-wells attempting to steal a copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, one of the most valuable rare books in the world. The other quarter of the film, though, consists of talking-head interviews with the real-deal crooks who inspired the tale. It’s not an unprecedented technique – documentarian icon Errol Morris produced a similar effort with this year’s Netflix series Wormwood – but it is a jarring one, and not quite as subversive as Layton would like audiences to believe. When Keoghan and Peters are onscreen, their performances are compelling enough, as is most of Layton’s narrative script – adding in the doc footage feels less revolutionary, and more like easy filler. It’s enough to feel, well, a bit robbed.

American Animals opens June 22 in Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary.

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