Director: Bart Layton
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd
Writer: Bart Layton
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
“I guess you’re just gonna have to take my word for it.”
Director Bart Layton’s first theatrical film was 2012’s The Imposter, a documentary that played with recreations and viewpoints to give us an entertaining and impressive feature. Layton brings a similar bag of tricks to American Animals, a true crime story that blurs the lines even more between documentary and narrative film. It’s a logical next step for a type of filmmaking dating back to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line or even Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.
American Animals tells the story of four college students in 2003 who decide to pull a heist on the rare book collection at Transylvania University. Aspiring artist Spencer (Barry Keoghan) tells his friend Warren (Evan Peters), a frustrated fuck-up, about the expensive books. From there, they slowly build up to actually planning the theft. The planning seems to involve watching movies like The Killing and Reservoir Dogs, which are odd films to model a successful heist after, but still. Eventually, they bring in Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) to round out the crew and put their plan into motion.
The most interesting aspect of the movie are the moments Layton must have been dying to include in a feature film since The Imposter. The line between fiction and reality are blurred in a lot of fun, interesting ways. The real-life guys who attempted this are interviewed throughout and narrate portions of the films. They often contradict each other about stuff like someone’s age or scarf colour. At one point the real Warren is seen in a car with the character Warren. They talk about whether they’re remembering it correctly. One scene with Spencer and Warren discussing the crime on a porch while smoking ends with a character saying to “pull in here,” then cutting to them in a car pulling into a gas station.
There’s a third layer of reality-bending going on as well. Not just between the real and the fictional, but also the reality within the fiction itself. Warren imagines himself inside of The Killing, listening closely to Sterling Hayden lay out his plan. Later on, entire aspects of what we saw earlier are called into question. All of this definitely sets it apart from more stereotypical crime thrillers.
Even the basics of the genre are generally pulled off well. The heist itself, including an intense and hard to watch scene of them subduing the librarian (Ann Dowd), is a glorious shitshow. The movie really lingers on the aftermath, which I enjoyed. There’s a fatalistic atmosphere as all four of them are just waiting until the day the cops knock their doors down. It’s impressively melancholy.
Not everything in the movie works as well. Eric and Chas are barely characters. They’re introduced late into the heist and are only vaguely sketched out, especially compared to Warren and Spencer. Abrahamson and Jenner do a good job. Jenner especially making the most of what time he gets, but it’s basically a two-hander all the way through. I also wish the movie had gone into more details about what made them do it. There are some vague platitudes about aimless, disaffected youth. Some rote dialogue like “we’re supposed to be hunter-gatherers, man, but our whole lives are unwrapping shit.” I wish it had delved a little more into why four well-off college kids would attempt this. More time spent on Eric and Chas might have helped this issue as well.
Overall, American Animals is a great twist on the crime genre. It uses unorthodox, reality-bending ways to tell a fairly simple story. The standard aspects of this type of film are pulled off with frenzied aplomb. The film is impressively executed. The same can’t be said for the execution of the heist.
Verdict: Watch it. American Animals doesn’t quite reach the heights that its interesting tricks and techniques seem to promise, but it’s sure as hell a fun watch. Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan continue to be standout performers in everything they do. I can’t wait to watch whatever film Bart Layton decides to make next.