Brian Formo’s review published on Letterboxd:
American Animals could be this generation's The Thin Blue Line, not in terms of social impact but in pop impact. Errol Morris' film created the crime recreation template—slow motion, shots from all angles, no need for an actor but a body that can be positioned in the various ways testimony is given, lit in a blue evening hue punctuated by lamp-posts, close up flashlights, or the eventual rotating police car/ambulance beacon lights—that was used by decades of true crime procedurals from Unsolved Mysteries to the smash cut (no known actor needed) template of the start of Law & Order. We are currently in a true crime mega-moment with multiple true crime mini-series, podcasts, documentaries etc. capturing massive attention for splinters at a time. And Bart Layton's film drops the real subjects of a crime, directly into the action of actors recreating their crime, seamlessly. As they question their other accomplices' remembrance of events, the hired actors deal with the new elements.
Dealing with a heist of rare Audubon Society nature books at a small, private Kentucky college. Layton's film deals with the fragile male ego of realizing that they might not get to be recognized as special in their lives so they decide to shortcut to money through stealing something that isn't heavily guarded because, well, it's a picture book of animals. The animal book itself is a reminder that human value of things is something that does not exist in the natural order, that something rare is worth something simply because there's someone somewhere willing to pay extra for it, and also that the Americas are rife with an abundance of species. Thievery is common in nature, but there is no value on anything in nature that rests outside of food, procreation, and elemental shelter/resistance.
Layton also makes these young men pop cultural critics of sorts, discussing numerous heist movies, but they never address the elephant in the room—that they are not beautiful or unique snowflakes, the fascist refrain from Fight Club, a movie these young men have most definitely seen. Instead of ignorance is bliss, this is ignorance gets pissed. And yeah, that's happening all around the world right now.
American Animals actually feels throughout the film that it is definitely going to become a heist classic in its own right. But once you get to the outcome of the heist there is a thudding, oh, that's all? In this way it reminds me of the first Serial podcast. Both are exceptionally well made and told but you get the sense that for all the robust production value each maker—Bart Layton, Sarah Koenig—chose a case that didn't match the production because the outcome of the case wasn't as monumental as the foundation of making a pop recreation of it. American Animals builds an awesomely coiled true crime potboiler/modern de-constructer up to a big stretch, but not a pounce.
I've seen many complain that American Animals, and its white male un-exceptionals, is angering due to the privilege to tell their stories after the fact, have a movie made about them, etc. I think mostly Layton makes fun of them and their alpha bickering/regression into the herd, but I will say that there is an icky and complex feeling by the end. (note: nothing said hereafter isn't known from a google search or from the fact that the real subjects are consistently inserted into the played out action, but slight spoiler if you haven't caught that yet). I say icky and complex because, this is actually how the American justice system should work: commit a crime like this (that includes tying up a woman) get seven years in jail, emerge with potential for a new life that includes more school/trade training, and we should be content with that but because we, as an American audience, know that that rehabilitation road that includes the same access to school and jobs after as it did before is almost exclusively a white privilege. This is how the system should work but it feels angering because at the same time you can watch something like American Animals you can also go to the theater and see If Beale Street Could Talk and see how the less privileged are railroaded into jail without prospects after. I understand the privilege critique because even though it shows how the system should work, the length that Layton shows their portraits during those subscripts allows our awareness of the unfairness of that portrait starts to creep in and the film ends on that societal awareness note, which Layton seems to not understand could've been an outcome.