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Captivating ‘American Animals’ takes heist film in a bold, new direction

Barry Keoghan, left, and Evan Peters star as best friends in the heist flick “American Animals.”
Barry Keoghan, left, and Evan Peters star as best friends in the heist flick “American Animals.” The Orchard

What is it about heist films that make us root for people to get away with stuff that isn’t theirs? Maybe it’s because, as depicted in movies, burglars have always had an air of coolness to them, and they love a good challenge. Break into a bank? Sure. Steal diamonds? No problem. Rob a train? OK.

The four college guys at the heart of the captivating “American Animals,” already out on digital and on DVD and Blu-Ray Tuesday, are anything but cool. They’re more like innocently clueless.

But “American Animals” is cool in other ways. The film proudly flaunts at the beginning that this is not based on a true story, but it is a true story. And first-time narrative director Bart Layton interjects interviews with the real-life subjects into the film. This device blurs the line between fiction and documentary in a novel way, and takes the heist film in a bold, new direction. The real-life stakes make it even more enthralling.

Spencer (Barry Keoghan, so creepy in last year’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) is a student at Kentucky’s Transylvania University on a tour of the private collection at the school’s library, guarded by a singular librarian (Ann Dowd). There, she shows the students several priceless books of art that pique Spencer’s interest (he’s an artist, by the way). He wonders to himself why no one steals the priceless books, because it’s gotta be easy, right?

He then says this aloud to his best buddy, Warren (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”), a wise-cracking fireball of energy with a penchant for trouble, who latches onto the idea.

But how does one plan a heist? You look it up on the Internet, of course, as Warren does by typing “how to plan a heist” on Google. The friends then watch apparently every heist film ever made, though they manage to miss the primary lesson in all those films: that something always — always — goes wrong.

Nevertheless, that sets their plan in motion, as they enlist two more friends, accounting major Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness fanatic Chas (Blake Jenner). The gang meticulously plots the theft and then sale of the stolen books. But some of them begin to have second thoughts, as emotions and nerves escalate.

Layton’s directing experience so far has been with documentaries, and it shows, to great effect. His last outing was the Sundance hit “The Imposter,” a true-life story about a young man in Spain who claims to be a grieving Texas family’s 16-year-old son who went missing for 3 years. “American Animals” is very similar in tone to that film, especially in the way that it presents recreations of events accompanied by voice-overs (here, by the real-life thieves, recalling the story from their memories, which sometimes clash). It’s often played for great comedic effect, but it’s also a creative way to tell a true-crime story.

The young performers are top-notch all around, drawing us even further into the characters’ plights, especially when the sense sets in that this is a really dangerous thing these “normal“ guys are pursuing, with very real consequences. The story says bigger-picture things about entitlement and the good ol’ American dream.

The film overall has great energy, propelled by a soundtrack that we’ve heard in other heist films before, but no matter. In the end, “American Animals” is like a train wreck waiting to happen that we can’t just keep from watching, as these guys gleefully pursue a very bad idea. But that’s what makes it so good.

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