American Animals, 2018.
Directed by Bart Layton.
Starring Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, Chas Allen, and Betty Jean Gooch.
Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history.
Bart Layton follows his previous documentary The Imposter (2012) with American Animals, a hybrid documentary drama that details how a group of four seemingly average and normal American teens attempted to steal $12 million worth of rare books from their local library.
Opening with the printed statement “this is not based on a true story, this is a true story”, the unusual styling of Layton’s documentary is at the forefront. Combining both real life interviews with a heist movie is a genius move from Layton and one that he somehow balances perfectly. Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan) is an artist struggling to find the thing in his life that will make him special. He becomes enthralled by a rare book of art at a library and he and his friend Warren Lipka (Peters) decide to plan a heist and steal it. As the plan develops, two more people are added to the crew: Eric Borsuk (Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Jenner).
The enjoyment of American Animals is in the unreliable narrator. At one point Evan Peters as Warren is sitting in a car and turns to real Warren Lipka and asks him “is this how it went?” It’s an inventive way to tell the story of four conflicting perspectives on what it is that led them to commit their crime. Even with the interviews of the real subjects there isn’t clarity on who said what and who suggested the heist etc, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. American Animals feels as if it’s an examination of white privilege and of the state of teens across the world. Each of the men involved are seeking some kind of adventure, they’re seeking meaning and they decide that a crime is the only way to achieve this. In one sequence they imagine the robbery playing out along to the remix of A Little Less Conversation a la Ocean’s Eleven. They also dress up as old men in some elaborate ruse and set up a meeting with a fence (or did they?). The actual facts are deliberately hazy and whilst normally this would frustrate, it only adds to the intrigue with this bizarre story. The robbery itself is cringe inducing to watch. There’s none of the style that they imagined and it’s horrible to watch.
In terms of performances, Evan Peters steals the show as the charismatic Warren Lipka. Referred to during the real life interviews as “the spice” that everyone had been looking for, Peters delivers a complex and layered performance. As an actor he’s mesmerised on the small screen with his various roles in American Horror Story, but hasn’t been given the credit he’s due. Here he oozes charisma and confidence, even in the bleaker moments as he deals with the fallout of the heist. It’s a tour de force performance. Rising star Barry Keoghan as the “main” character Spencer delivers a sympathetic performance as the artist who wants something to happen to him. Despite the events of the robbery you empathise with these characters even though you know you shouldn’t.
The interviews with the real life robbers is equally illuminating. Warren Lipka is first introduced to the camera showing a tattoo on his arm of a T-Rex trying to turn off ceiling fan. It sums up his character perfectly. The real Spencer Reinhard also gets to tell his side of the story and it’s clear that there are details being held back or misremembered. Instead of judging the group for committing the crime, Layton seems content to explore their motivations and what led them down this path. The fact that there is no clear answer only added to my enjoyment of this unique film.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★