It’s not the easiest climate in which to sell a story about white dudes who plot a heist to kick up some excitement in their privileged lives — or at least to sell it and make us care.
Director Bart Layton manages that with “American Animals,” which premiered in the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance on Friday, though it’s mostly thanks to a narrative based on a gobsmackingly unbelievable true story.
In 2004, a group of college boys conspired to rob a rare books archive at Transylvania University in Kentucky (yup, real college), namely the precious works of John James Audubon who cataloged and painted the birds of North America in the 19th century.
In search of a “transformative” experience that would break the monotony of their Southern routines, the men pull off a staggeringly bad plan to obtain the books. It manifests as a harebrained scheme to supposedly fence the materials using an international crime outfit they find through two email addresses and a friend of a friend (all true).
Layton calls on some heat seeking young talent to assemble his league of robbing dunces: Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”), Barry Keoghan (the sinister breakout from “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), Blake Jenner (TV’s “Supergirl”) and newcomer Jared Abrahamson.
The crowd at Park City’s Eccles Theater reveled in their bro-ish camaraderie and fast-talking confidence (many of the scenes, especially in the technical planning of what becomes a disastrous robbery, are so know-it-all charming it reminded us of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network”).
Where the film suffers, however, is in its deployment of the real-life men the actors portray. The actual figures involved in the crime are very much integrated into the film in brief interstitial interviews, painting the scenes before or after them with actual memory.
It’s novel and endearing at times, especially as the men describe their own subjective memories and the actors have to play moments several different ways in the scripted shots (“I, Tonya” did something similar). The device is a tension killer, though. As the men appear reflective, happy and free, it makes the question of their mission and its consequences irrelevant.
Peters, as usual, is full of rage and fire. He’s exciting to watch, but we’ve seen the character many times over (especially his politically and mentally unsound cult leader in this year’s “AHS: Cult”). Keoghan is less terrifying than his “Sacred Deer” character, but just as haunting in his aloofness.
Jenner, an angry meathead, really surprises here — especially in a scene outside Christie’s auction house in New York where the men attempt to have their stolen goods appraised. Jenner weeps and brandishes a gun, as he realizes the punishment coming for their arrogant boredom, to great effect.
Quick shoutout to Layton for paying homage to another great heist: there’s a dream sequence that imagines the book theft going off just like the “Ocean’s Eleven” crew would, complete with Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” playing over the action.
“American Animals” is an acquisition title, repped by UTA here in Park City.