What initially appears to be a slight, if entertaining, true-crime heist romp, in fact, hides untold depths in a muscular offering from The Imposter director Bart Layton.
Using a similar approach to that remarkable documentary, Layton melds true-life accounts from the subjects involved with exquisitely mounted, cinematic recreations.
American Animals tells the story of four bored, affluent college boys in Kentucky, who plot to rob their university's library for its priceless artwork, despite not really knowing anything about bank-robbing or selling art on the black market.
It's a story whose eventual outcome isn't hard to foresee, but which somehow manages to ramp up the tension in a series of queasily pulse-pounding sequences to keep audiences guessing, as the boys get dangerously close to pulling off their mission.
The film employs its documentary-ish style to compellingly warp audience expectations about the veracity of much of what is shown on screen. The film invests in its recreations - employing a stellar cast (including Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan as the two masterminds behind the heist), and using evocative camerawork throughout to add wonderful grace notes to what could easily have been an afterthought in the hands of less accomplished film-makers.
This pays off most significantly in the gangbusters heist sequence, which succeeds in being blisteringly intense even when we've already been told roughly what will happen to the subjects involved.
What is most impressive about the film is what it has to say about truth, believing what we see and what we're told by those in a place of authority. Layton as a film-maker has established a startling ability to pull the rug out from under the viewers, subverting and twisting our expectations and our understanding.
Sometimes a great story well told isn't necessarily the real story and American Animals is stranger-than-fiction in every sense.
Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner
Director: Bart Layton
Running Time: 116 mins
Rating: R13 (Violence, drug use and offensive language)
Verdict: Melds fiction and truth, memory and subjectivity, in fascinating and complex ways.