“American Animals is nothing if not a movie that arrives at some very simple truths in the hardest way possible,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “A slick, well-acted, and intensely self-reflexive docudrama from the director of The Impostor, [Bart] Layton’s first narrative feature (whatever that means) takes a remarkable footnote from our country’s recent history and sticks it inside an infinity mirror, creating a sort of Walmart Kiarostami that works too hard to sell its structure, and not hard enough to justify its subject.”
It’s “based on a gobsmackingly unbelievable true story,” notes Matt Donnelly at TheWrap. “In 2004, a group of college boys conspired to rob a rare books archive at Transylvania University in Kentucky (yup, real college), namely the precious works of John James Audubon who cataloged and painted the birds of North America in the 19th century. In search of a ‘transformative’ experience that would break the monotony of their Southern routines, the men pull off a staggeringly bad plan to obtain the books. It manifests as a harebrained scheme to supposedly fence the materials using an international crime outfit they find through two email addresses and a friend of a friend (all true).”
“Do you reassemble the real-life players for a documentary recounting the events?” asks Kevin Fallon at the Daily Beast. “Or do you dramatize them in a bells-and-whistles, adrenaline-pumping feature? In what may have been the first of director Bart Layton’s fuck-it-all surrender to cinematic excess and a pyro-like burning of the filmmaking rulebook, you can imagine him snickering and raising a devious eyebrow: ‘Why not just do both?’ American Animals is that experiment—part dramatization, part documentary—and a thrilling, surprising one at that.”
And “the results are sensational,” finds Variety’s Guy Lodge. This is “a riveting college-boy crime caper that tiggers along on pure movie-movie adrenalin, before U-turning into a sobering reflection on young male privilege and entitlement. Performed with piss, vinegar and some poignancy by a fractious quartet of bright young things—with the ever-more-intriguing Barry Keoghan first among equals—Layton’s crowd-pleasing Sundance competition entry is tricked out to the max with lithe structural fillips, flashes of cinematic quotation and formal sleight of hand that gradually reveals a pointed thematic purpose.”
“Layton has fun early on with some Bro-shomon elements,” writes Mike D’Angelo, but “American Animals isn't about the subjective nature of memory, nor is it a meditation on fiction vs. reality. It just kinda sprinkles some of those ideas onto a mildly entertaining dumb-heist narrative.”
For Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com, “some of the directorial choices, including on-the-nose music cues, get just exhausting long before the film is over. . . . I never quite got a handle on why I was watching it.”
But Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan finds it “genuinely innovative, pleasingly entertaining, and deliciously more than the sum of its parts. . . . It’s rare to see a film which genuinely breaks new ground, which is why the picture should be embraced with glee.”
Talking to Screen’s Louise Tutt, Layton calls American Animals “a coming-of-age, existential movie masquerading as a heist movie.”
Updates, 1/21: “American Animals mostly works in the way all good films about best-laid-plans going astray do,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “The actual heist sequence is a tense triumph of black-comic suspense, as these kids catch up to what we know already, plummeting through the holes in their plan.”
“While bowing to modern stalwarts of the genre like Michael Mann, Oliver Stone and, above all, Quentin Tarantino, Layton employs the contents of his own large bag of tricks to tell a tale both engrossing and grotesque,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “Both as a writer and director, Layton delivers the dramatic goods here with the skill of a pro at the top of his game while adding the rueful perspective of time's reassessment of youthful indiscretions; this has to rate among the most accomplished and fully realized big-screen debuts of recent times.”
At the Playlist, though, Jordan Ruimy finds that “the decision to have the real-life players appear as well is problematic as it consistently kills any kind of flow the movie might have had dead to the ground. The random cuts into the non-fiction, talking-head realm throughout the film is unnecessary and abrupt.”
Update, 1/22: “American Animals is a legitimately exciting, funny, suspenseful, and at one point deeply upsetting crime film, ably demonstrating a command of genre trappings in service of a narrative about people warped by those very clichés,” writes Daniel Schindel at the Film Stage.
Update, 1/23: The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang finds that the “men’s pointed reflections on how everything went down turn American Animals into an absorbingly multi-faceted portrait of how privilege, entitlement and boredom can give rise to wayward criminal impulses; imagine I, Tonya with less comic snarkiness and more dramatic integrity.”
Update, 1/24: For Noel Murray, writing for the Week, “there's something undeniably poignant about how the ‘fun’ movie version of this true-crime adventure keeps bumping up against Layton's interviews with real people, who reflect on what they did and how crummy they felt after.”
Updates, 1/25: For Victor Morton in the Salt Lake City Weekly, “once you get what the film’s doing, it offers no surprises and feels ritualistic. And especially after the theft is (badly) carried out, it sputters without purpose.”
“MoviePass Ventures and The Orchard are partnering to buy North American distribution rights,” reports Variety’s Brent Lang.
Update, 1/27: For the Credits, Kelle Long talks with composer Anne Nikitin, whose “score nimbly navigates the mixed genre movie that explores the dangerous persuasions of privilege,” and with Layton and his cast.