American Animals, 2018.
Written and directed by Bart Layton.
Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, Ann Dowd and Udo Kier.
A group of disaffected college students decide to steal valuable books from the university library and sell them on for millions of dollars.
Bart Layton’s debut movie, released in 2012, was all about the nature of truth. The Imposter is a compelling and knotty documentary that, through interviews with its real figures, blurs the lines between fiction and reality in telling the story of a famous fraudster. Layton examines the nature of reality again – all the more relevant in an era of fake news – for American Animals, which is a fictional take on a real event, complicated by the presence of the real people. The opening titles declare “this is not based on a true story, this is a true story”, and it’s a clear statement of impish intent.
Unfortunately, this is a step down from The Imposter on almost every level, despite its impressive central idea. The movie follows the story of a bungled art heist that took place at a Kentucky university back in 2004. Four young men attempted to steal a selection of rare books, including works by Charles Darwin – a quote from him gives the movie its title – and John James Audubon. All four of those men, who have since served prison terms, appear in the movie, while their roles are played by actors as well.
Confused? That’s exactly what Layton is going for.
It’s an intriguing way of telling a story and one that ensures American Animals never feels like a straight heist movie. Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters are the audience anchor points into this world and it is the two of them who conceive the robbery. Their initial friendship and planning of the heist is intercut with interviews with their real-life counterparts, allowing Layton to embrace them as unreliable narrators and tell the story from a number of different angles simultaneously. As with The Imposter, Layton uses personal truths and recollections to create a collage of entertaining dissonance.
Both protagonists constantly discuss the idea of doing something “extraordinary”. Peters and Keoghan are believable and pathetic as movie-obsessed youngsters – there’s a very funny scene focused around Reservoir Dogs – struggling with the idea that they might not be destined to achieve greatness. The same is true of Blake Jenner’s hotheaded getaway driver, who was born into privilege, but struggles to make his own way. They use the heist as a means of escaping from reality and never quite seem sure they’re going to go through with it until they take it all too far and reach a point of no return. Far from hardened criminals, these are robbers who can’t move forward until they’ve tapped “how to plan a heist” into Google.
The film, however, suffers as the rickety bridge Layton has created begins to fall apart. It’s a movie about strange, unfocused people and so the result is a film that reflects those characteristics. There are rambling interludes, including a trip to Amsterdam, and the entire thing has the overly clever-clever feel of a student plotting out a movie on a flipboard during a drunken dorm room night-in. As much as the conceit of American Animals is entertaining, it’s often exhausting to watch and runs out of steam a long time before the end.
In common with many similar crime thrillers, there’s a nagging sense of an absence of consequences here. It’s true that all of these men spent time in prison, but they’re now fairly successful, and still pretty young, creative types being paid to take part in a movie about their crimes. Layton encourages us to pity these people, despite the fact their actions were undoubtedly wrong, at an age where they should be willing to take responsibility for what they did. Glorifying fictional criminals is one thing, but pitying real ones leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
There’s a lot to enjoy about American Animals and Layton deserves all of the credit in the world for refusing to tell the story in a conventional manner. It’s also another terrific outing for Barry Keoghan, who continues to establish himself as one of the most interesting young performers working in Hollywood. Ultimately, though, it crumbles under the weight of its own wild storytelling approach and emerges every bit as bungled as the crime at its centre.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.