Bart Layton has made two films in his career. Somehow, he’s made the same one twice and yet somehow, he very much hasn’t. Both his debut feature, the intoxicating The Imposter, and his breezy follow-up American Animals deal with true stories about criminals in search of a life with meaning. Both feature colourful interviews with their real subjects and splice those interviews with cinematic recreations of the questionably accurate tales they weave. The two are up front about the haziness of a ‘truth’ that’s splintered into various strands by subjectivity.
There is one, pretty glaring, difference however. The Imposter is categorised as a documentary while American Animals is well…not. Perhaps Layton is suggesting we do away with the invisible line that, for some, arbitrarily exists between factual cinema and all other forms. Surely, they would argue, all film is constructed reality. It’s more likely that Layton doesn’t care what you call it and is simply happy to make films the way he desires. Whatever the reason, American Animals is a strange beast but it’s tension between fictionalisation and honest attempts at representation can make it a fascinating one. There are recent works like it – Richard Linklater’s Bernie comes to mind – but more than any other film I’m aware of, American Animals gleefully sits at the exact intersection between documentary and fiction film.
The film tells the true story of the heist of a Kentucky college library in 2004. The culprits? Four young, mostly middle-class white men whose only real motivation was an escape from the mundanity of existence in the American southwest. We are first introduced to the slightly awkward and somewhat introverted Spencer, played by the increasingly omnipresent Irishman Barry Keoghan. Spencer is a promising art student who longs for the kind of life experience that may one day inspire his masterpiece. It’s clear, however, he needs a push.
That comes in the from his close friend and trouble magnet Warren (Evan Peters), an athletic scholarship student from a difficult home who gets his kicks by stealing waffles just to throw them back at the security guard in anger.
On a tour of his university in Lexington, Spencer spots the library’s rare book collection. Intrigued, the two friends then hatch a plan to steal an extremely valuable edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and other rarities. Down the line they realise they’ll need more man power for the heist so added are the bookish, math nerd Erik (Jared Abrahamson) and the confident, entrepreneurial jock Chas (Blake Jenner). As mentioned the actual men are shown throughout, each giving us their sometimes conflicting versions of how it all went down. The real characters are even injected into the recreations, breaking the fourth wall as they question the veracity of their partners in crimes’ words.
It’s Spencer and Warren’s friendship which forms the emotional core as it becomes harder to gage just who might be manipulating who. At first, Warren would seem a safe bet as the ‘bad influence’ but Spencer’s intimate knowledge of his friend’s inner workings might suggest he knows just what buttons to push. While Keoghan proves his range of the shy, entitled southern boy, it’s Peters who really shines in the showier role. He nails the livewire unpredictability required of Warren but also the sorrowful sense of self-worth that’s deftly buried beneath it all.
In terms of tone and style, American Animals is a far cry from gritty genre classics like Rififi and Reservoir Dogs. The four, very different boys’ interplay, antagonistic and amusing, certainly recalls the irreverence of The Italian Job but none it’s slick cockney charm. Layton seems eager to deglamourize grand theft, bucking the trend of the film’s consciously cooler predecessors. One scene, in which we see Warren’s imagined version of the heist run like an immaculately timed swiss watch, is a direct lift from the Ocean’s franchise. Complete with that funky lounge music soundtrack and absurd clockwork precision, the moment questions cinema’s need to make criminals look so enviable.
That Soderbergh inspired homage works in direct contrast with the heist scenes proper. These times, the the tension –unbearable enough for the knots in your stomach to tighten to nigh breaking point – comes from the amateurish antics of our protagonists. The first attempt, in which the four disguise themselves as old men, is botched only because a few unexpected staff members cause them to chicken out. The second is a masterclass in frantic fuckuppery. It’s a taut vomit spewing, Murphy’s Law mess in which every disastrous event crashes into the next and these four young men are reduced to four little boys. It’s a miracle they got out with anything, and an even greater one that they didn’t get caught there and then.
It’s after that the docu-drama method starts to wear thin. The action lags when with the third act stretching longer than it needs to towards a pre-determined conclusion. Some of Layton’s flourishes in the recreation sequences, like the slow-as-snails motion seen upon his characters apprehension by authorities, don’t quite land as they did earlier. Regardless, American Animals is still an inventive look at youthful malaise and masculinity in crisis. It’s an anti-brat pack movie, with Layton centring the wants and hopes of the directionless youth before the pulling the rug from under us. He presents us with four, relatively privileged men who could have gone anywhere but chose to go nowhere.
One of the final words are given to the librarian that Warren and co. callously tied up and traumatised when they were stealing. She refuses to make allowances for them and sees them for what they were: men with nothing better to do than taser an old lady. Layton is smart enough to know that his own film isn’t any more ‘truthful’ then the versions given by Spencer, Warren or Erik, but he’s also wise enough to leave us with the only truth that should matter – that of the victim’s.