An easy way to suggest that a tangled story about desperate people brushes up against profundity is to throw the word "American" in the title. So it goes with Bart Layton's dreary, infuriating based-on-real-stupidity heist drama American Animals. Like I, Tonya, the film winkingly dramatizes an incident of criminal violence planned and executed by dipshits and then suggests it tells us something about the Way We All Live Now. Here, though, the pseudo-documentary interview segments actually star the real criminals, four handsome young men whose cut jawlines suggest there's some truth to the belief that prison offers a good chance to get some serious gym time.
Led by rudderless stoners Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters), college dudes personally offended that they're expected to work to get anyplace in this life, the quartet plots a half-assed robbery of million-dollar rare books from a Kentucky University library. They persist in their scheme even after it becomes clear that the heist will depend upon assaulting and restraining a librarian.
The actors, to their credit, never try to charm us -- they play these no-empathy idiots as no-empathy idiots. But Layton cuts from a tense, upsetting dramatization of the attack on the librarian (Ann Dowd) to quick shots of the real criminals looking pained and ashamed. Again and again, we're told that these guys chose to do this because they wanted to matter in the world -- one resorts to the old we were told we were special cant as explanation. So why reward the bastards with exactly what they wanted by putting them on screen in a movie?