Wesley R. Ball’s review published on Letterboxd:
You know your movie’s bad when you have to get MoviePass to distribute it. The “unlimited movie tickets” giant has released two films thus far, and given the reception of their most recent release Gotti, it may be safe to say that there’s a good reason no other company would touch these two films for release. American Animals had a lot going for it with its true (or not true?) story that almost seems too outrageous to have actually happened. What we get is a strange concoction of documentary and crime film, complete with interviews with the real perpetrators who also serve as occasionally unreliable narrators who consistently change the audience perspective on certain key elements of this plot. It’s a poor man’s I, Tonya if there ever was one, but its execution of the same concept is sorely lacking in the same wit and stylish substance that the latter film had.
Its narrators control the story, contradicting each other’s points of view while making for an extraordinarily messy narrative structure that falls apart the further into this convoluted plot the film takes us. Credit has to be handed to the writer and director- they were clearly going for some kind of unique narrative style that could have made for something new and exhilarating, but unfortunately its execution is excruciatingly painful to witness, as their buffoonery in their haphazard heist plot is far less humorous than it is just plain awkward to watch.
This is a major disappointment, considering the outrageously true story could have made for some exceptional comedy. Its trailer was horrifyingly misleading- touted as a comedy, it was far more a character drama that focuses on the perpetrators’ shady backgrounds and seemingly impossible setups. Their sidestories boil in the background, giving us little motivation to actually care for their individual plights. They’re all deplorable college students who’ve seen too many (or perhaps too few) heist films- and if their characters weren’t enough to drive you away from sympathy, then the actual heist itself surely will. It’s a vulgar display of unmitigated cruelty- absolutely despicable; which undoubtedly was the point that director Bart Layton was trying to convey, but was it really necessary? It may have been forgivable had there been a shred of decent comedy, but the entire ordeal was a massive pain to experience.
There may have been more of a saving grace to this heist film had it not tried to cram in every conceivable movie reference. Constant nods to Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs plays a prominent part in the heist’s planning), and other well-known heist films are thrown in just because; and there was even a reference to the original Jaws that had me rolling my eyes into the back of my head. It’s understandable that the kids behind this plot were obsessed with movies, but that obsession sadly doesn’t translate to the screen well at all here. It’s an annoying addition, lacking any real meaning or endearing qualities that resonated within me as a lifelong fan of the art.
Heist films are supposed to be thrilling, graceful, and stylish- none of this was ever present in American Animals. Yes, the point of the story was that these characters didn’t actually know how to execute a perfect heist (basing their knowledge off of some older films and shoddy internet research), but if that were the case, they could have at least made this story a rollicking comedy. The awkward presence of Barry Keoghan (who was brilliant in the psychologically fractured The Killing of a Sacred Deer) sucks every bit of attainable comedy out of the room- he seems completely out of place here, though, again, that may have been the intention the director had in casting him. But then, if that were the case, the other actors should have ensured that they could keep the comedic value up, or at the very least a bit of palpable tension. None of this is present in American Animals- an agonizing “MoviePass Venture” that makes me even more anxious for the downfall of that ugly conglomeration. If they’re going to be churning out duds like this while also changing their ticket policies every other day for their benefit and at the expense of the consumer, I don’t want to see them dominating the theater business either.