Review / ‘American Animals’ (M) *** and a half

THIS is the first cinematic feature directed by Bart Layton, whose moving-images career thus far has been in writing and producing TV documentary series.

“American Animals” incorporates its five real-life protagonists in delivering its story. The film also uses actors to portray them. In 2004, four of them stole valuable rare books from the Kentucky University library (the fifth is the librarian who kept the university’s rare-book collection).

After release from prison, they made themselves available to Layton as consultants to provide the film with authenticity. Were their brains so addled by what they’d seen on TV or cinema screens that they mistook those influences for real life? Stranger than fiction.

The heist theme is well-enough-known from scads of movies. The one I remember with most satisfaction is Jules Dassin’s “Topkapi” (1964) from an Eric Ambler novel. That was a clever heist with a crime-doesn’t-pay outcome and great tensions. “American Animals” reflects only that outcome. The rest is a study of preparation followed by commission of the theft in which the four young men lose the plot big time.

The total package is entertaining enough but early revelation of the denouement is a constant background, leading to relatively low tension and conflict levels. It’s not easy to like the four young men. Nor does knowing in advance where it’s going to end diminish an underlying morality statement. That may lead audiences to feel unexpected sensations in response to its message. It’s certainly a heist movie but it’s equally about how social values have receded in the US.

At Palace Electric and Dendy

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