American Animals

Having wowed with his doc debut The Imposter, British director Bart Layton builds on that success in American Animals, a whizzing true-life heist-gone-wrong movie.

Four American students at the private Transylvania University in Kentucky decide to steal some rare books from the college library – see, and you thought students never went near the library any more.

The books include a Darwin first edition of Origin of the Species and, the nugget, Audubon’s illustrated volumes of The Birds of America. The students watch heist movies to plan their raid, get the “gang” together, scope out the library and plot their getaway.

All the time, Layton cuts to interviews with the real perpetrators reflecting on their crime. We’re never sure if they’re in jail or contrite, so we never quite know what might happen until it happens. They bicker, they fumble dry runs, they try on silly costumes and doubt each other’s commitment. They also consider the effect it could have on the rest of their comfortable lives, a risk to their much-anticipated golden futures. But, as the chief agitator puts it, will they ever do anything as daring, exciting, ambitious as this heist?

I have to say, despite the interplay with reality, the film remains tremendously exciting, edge-of-the-seat stuff. That’s precisely because it’s about how different things are when they’re really happening. Much of the guilt lies around any pain inflicted on the college librarian, played by the redoubtable Anne Dowd, who becomes the fulcrum of the action, both moral and physical. Ultimately, the film hinges on whether these students can handle the reality of their actions and Layton plays with the tensions of that disconnect in a most original and thrilling way.