The title of American Animals has a genetic link to the annual Darwin Awards, which chart the ways in which “humankind is a devolving species.” The time is 2004, and the protagonists are four college students who decide to steal what’s thought to be the world’s most valuable book from the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky: Audubon’s multivolume Birds of America. (Driving home the Darwin connection, they also have their eye on a first edition of On the Origin of Species.) From its daft conception to ignominious outcome, it’s one of history’s stupidest heists: You don’t even need the cutting back and forth between the actors and their chastened, real-life counterparts to know it couldn’t possibly work. But the writer-director, Bart Layton — whose 2012 documentary The Imposter probed the mind of a French man who passed himself off as the missing 16-year-old son of Texas parents — has a near-clinical interest in maladaptations to life. The movie asks, “What were they thinking?”
A Brit with a sociological bent, Layton roots the story in a mixture of peer pressure, toxic masculinity, and the dread of young men who feel the fruits of capitalism growing beyond their reach. Barry Keoghan plays Spencer, the talented artist who sees the Audubon book on a library tour and mentions it to his friend, Warren (Evan Peters) — the most wayward of American animals. At a frat party, Spencer asks, “Ever feel like you’re waiting for something to happen but you don’t know what it is?” and Warren responds by offering two designs for the future: Either you carpe the diem and rise above the little people, or one day, you wake up wondering who you’d have been if you hadn’t beavered away your life. It’s a nice, understated joke when a shopping cart some frat boy sets alight sails across the back of the screen: capitalism and its senseless annihilation in one image.
Layton is too fancy in American Animals’ first act. He opens on heist day, cutting between the young men making themselves up as oldsters and documentary interviews with their parents, who say that nothing in their kids’ childhoods could have predicted what happened. (“Everything in our family was geared towards our kids to be successful.”) The bigger problem is that stupidity just isn’t a very interesting subject. What pulls you in is the planning — which involves tasing the librarian (Ann Dowd) — and the dread that builds as the Day That Will Live in Idiocy approaches. Keoghan makes a good, jittery, unformed protagonist while Peters is perfect as a passing-for-normal sociopath. You begin to feel for these kids as the film turns into a dopes’ Crime and Punishment and the question on their minds is clearly “What were we thinking?”
*This article appears in the May 28, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!