American Animals, 2018.
Directed by Bart Layton.
Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abramson, Udo Kier, Ann Dowd, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk.
Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history.
Bart Layton follows up his mesmerising 2012 documentary The Imposter with another delirious examination of unreliable narrators and the wild yarns they love to spin. Melding stranger-than-fiction subject matter with terrific performances and sharp below-the-line work, American Animals just might be one of 2018’s most fascinating cult curios in the making.
Layton’s film begins with the title card “This is not based on a true story”, before the “not based on” part quickly disappears. It’s a simple but effective mission statement, begging audiences to make up their own minds on what they’re about to see.
The story is centred on a real-life library heist which took place at Kentucky’s Transylvania University in 2004, where four college students plotted to steal a collection of rare books worth millions of dollars.
Rather than leap straight into a conventional narrative feature for his sophomore effort, Layton decides to keep one foot planted firmly in the documentary realm, splicing in interviews with the actual focal figures, and even occasionally injecting them into the diegetic world of the movie itself to humourous effect.
It’d be easy for a “gimmick” like this to play as navel-gazingly ostentatious. However, there’s an agreeably unassuming quality to it, which combined with the considerable human insight gained from the subjects themselves, makes it a gamble that unquestionably pays off. The four young men offer starkly different perspectives on many of the events that occur, and Layton’s non-judgemental stance leaves audiences to pick a side for themselves.
Evan Peters and rising star Barry Keoghan play the two most prominent members of the team, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard, and their performances compliment one another perfectly.
Peters’ manic energy bristles up against Keoghan’s more subdued tenor, and once hot-headed jock Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) joins the fray later, all bets are off. Just barely girding the team together, meanwhile, is Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), surely the most sensible member of the group, whose aversion to hostage-taking creates some awkward tension with Warren.
They make for a wonderfully compelling central quartet, to say nothing of the entertaining supporting turns by the brilliant Ann Dowd (as the librarian guarding the books) and Udo Kier (as a Dutch buyer who may or may not actually exist). As an ensemble they electrify, especially during a live-wire third act which largely dispenses with the levity and asks the actors to travel to some darker realms.
In many ways the star of the movie is Layton himself, though, whose writer-director two-hander is really quite sublime here. What could’ve been a smug meta gimmick becomes so much more, for though there are cutesy nods to classic heist films – even an imaginary, Ocean’s Eleven-style heist sequence set to “A Little Less Conversation” – he uses the interplay between fiction and “reality” to add layers of shading to both characters and incident. This is particularly true in the tightly wound finale, which becomes increasingly anxious to observe.
The director’s ear for music also serves him well here; in addition to a pulsing score from his Imposter collaborator Anne Nikitin, the soundtrack boasts a mix of early-2000s licks and classic tunes from decades past. Most impressively, Layton appears to have finally reclaimed Donovan’s haunting “Hurdy Gurdy Man” from its intensely creepy utility in David Fincher’s Zodiac.
While it would’ve been easy for the film to settle for being a weirdly poignant tribute to the spirit of bumbling determination and even the power of bromance, Layton smartly doesn’t let his subjects off the hook quite so easily. At the heart of this movie is an unsettling critique of comfortable middle-class malaise, with four kids whose barriers to success have largely been removed, which may well be their greatest fear of all.
An ingenious fusion of documentary and docudrama, American Animals fires a seemingly conventional heist film through a prism of questionable truth, abetted by marvellous performances and tenacious style.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.