Sarah Knauf’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I don't even think they know why they did it."
As both a documentary and a narrative drama, American Animals fundamentally fails at telling this story the way that it should actually be told. Bart Layton's previous film, The Imposter, is a quintessential documentary film that's competently shot and directed. Unlike The Imposter, American Animals lacks a clear focus from all sides of the story. Betty Jean Gooch, both real and dramatized, is underutilized until she's convenient, used more like a sympathy card from the young men and the filmmakers rather than an actual woman.
Perhaps the greatest problem here is that the content of the character of these boys is beyond stale. Four white college boys with "promising futures" are bored with their lives and decide to commit a crime, and yet the audience is supposed to fully sympathize with them, perhaps only because their real life counterparts are present. Perhaps this is a spoiler, but it should be obvious by the interviews and the fact that they're white boys in the American South, but the punishment does not fit the crime. And that leads to the complaint that stories like this are no longer stories that really need to be told. A major complaint I've heard about I, Tonya is its fourth wall breaking and humanizing of someone who did a bad thing, but we've seen so many movies that do the exact same thing with white males, and its only female or poc centric movies that get this criticism.
The Imposter works so spectacularly because it's such an unusual tale. American Animals fails to engage as the boys model their lives off of heist movies like Letterboxd men instead of having actual motivations. The documentary aspects of the film are disappointing; they're rife with leading questions, scripted moments, and painfully stale documentary tropes (ex: a shocking moment occurs and we're given shots of all four men silently looking forlorn away from camera).
Ultimately the performances are good to a certain point, although Barry Keoghan is so bizarre looking it's hard to see him as a typical Southern kid, and Evan Peters eventually devolves into his usual coked up performance. Jenner and Abrahamson are fine but not great, making the film just average, with a below average score because we should not be making films about average subjects at this point in the year 2018.