American Animals

* * * * (out of five)

In 2012 British TV documentarian Bart Layton made the leap to the big screen with feature documentary The Imposter, and blew my, and a lot of other, minds. It stands as one of the great documentaries; if you’ve not seen it, don’t google it first. Like Tickled, the less you know, the more you’ll get.

Now he’s back on the big screen with a docudrama about four well-off young Kentucky men who got together, in 2004, to commit a crime. He interviews the actual men, their parents, and some other connected parties, but the bulk of the running time is dramatization, which is to say, a proper scripted filmic take on the events. The result is wildly, gleefully entertaining and I can’t recommend it enough.

Layton has cast the film impeccably, most notably with Evan Peters as the gang’s ringleader, Warren Lipka. If you don’t watch the American Horror Story TV franchise, or the X-Men cinema franchise, you may not know Peters’ work; he’s a fabulously charismatic and natural young actor in the lean, aquiline, blonde, erudite vein of (young) Christopher Walken and (young) James Spader. The real Lipka, whom we see often, is also deeply charismatic – he himself could be a movie star – and the casting of Peters is integral to our “getting” why three other seemingly smart young men, with futures for the taking, instead decided to roll their lives’ dice on a sketchy heist.

Our lead is Spencer Reinhard, played by the incredibly versatile Brit thesp Barry Keoghan (who was so brilliant in The Killing of a Sacred Deer); weirdly, Reinhard too is movie-star handsome, while Keoghan, by any measure, is not, but his performance is too strong for his looks to stand in the way. Layton has allowed Reinhard’s on-camera assertions that, during the lengthy (and seemingly thorough) planning of the heist, he often thought of walking away, to give we the audience an at least half-way sympathetic character.

Ultimately the film is riotously funny. Layton sets up and maintains a terrific, jovial tone, and even when things get heavy, we’re allowed to enjoy the ride. Don’t look for any great insight into the human condition; these guys have paid society’s price, but whether they’ve learned anything is up for debate. What I learned is that Layton’s incredible score with The Imposter was no fluke; now he’s on my short list of directors whom I must follow. Unlike these small-time crooks, he’s big league.

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