AMERICAN ANIMALS marks British director Bart Layton‘s follow-up to his well regarded and innovative 2012 debut, THE IMPOSTER. Shifting the docudrama balance to the latter half of the portmanteau, AMERICAN ANIMALS is well paced and inventive with the truth in a way that grips rather than grates.
The story centres around the 2004 theft of valuable rare books from Kentucky’s Transylvania University, interspersing dramatised stretches with interviews with the real-life perpetrators and those in their orbit. The idea for the robbery nucleates from student artist Spencer Rheinhard (Barry Keoghan) before being driven forward by the more wayward seeming Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). As the plan grows, they bring in more straight-laced seeming Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and jockish getaway driver Chas (Blake Jenner), struggling to figure out how “no one gets hurt” as they acquire the books – the prime target being John James Audubon’s The Birds of America – for shady buyers in Amsterdam.
Layton jumps frequently between the real young men at the centre of this curious robbery, and the dramatisation that embraces the gaps and contradictions in their recollection. In so doing, Layton has ostensibly sought to apply a sheen of veracity to the classic heist film, but in reality lying beneath is a neat, tight deconstruction of the artifice and filmic facades imagined for such criminal exploits. The typical pillars – idea formation, planning boards, acquiring new skillsets with each member – are built up only to be devastatingly unpicked by the shambolic real operation.
“The typical pillars are built up only to be devastatingly unpicked by the shambolic real operation.”
Although the film frequently flirts with being a bit too cute when translating fuzzy memory to unreliable narration – an early contradiction highlighted visually gives little insight – the climactic sequences contrast deeply with the slick robberies of film lore evoked throughout. This comparison is forcefully conveyed with the use of the Junkie XL remix of ‘A Little Less Conversation’, as the fictionalised robbers imagine a calm and besuited heist set to the tune. The sequence works as reference to Soderbergh’s use of the Presley original in OCEAN’S ELEVEN but also producing a remix itself to humorously poke fun at the crew’s delusions of grandeur with a big metephorical boom mic. Spencer and Warren venerate the heist movies they watch, as is particularly evident in their decision to assign codenames inspired by RESERVOIR DOGS for no discernible purpose.
Rather than unnecessarily legitimising the narrative sections, the interview segments loan some interest about what supposedly compelled the gang to carry out the robbery. This isn’t examined forensically, with the (now) men left to discuss it alone on their own terms. Their apparent regret and unchallenged motivations mean the film perhaps can appear too stand-offish in its judgment of their actions. However, an alternative view is that this passivity makes the audience complicit in revelling in not only these exploits, but those of the very films Spencer and Warren consume – RESERVOIR DOGS, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, THE KILLING, etc. – and forces them to question their own role in viewing AMERICAN ANIMALS.
“Not every beat is hit with such skill. Playing ‘New York Groove’ as Spencer and Warren enter NYC feels so brutally on-the-nose it is close to bloodying it.”
Not every beat is hit with such skill. Blake Jenner’s tense indoor water-rower vignette feels like a scene done to death in House of Cards. Playing ‘New York Groove’ as Spencer and Warren enter NYC feels so brutally on-the-nose it is close to bloodying it. Some tropes are left fully constructed, all while others come crashing down around them. Overall, however, Layton’s second feature makes the narrative and the genuine elements nourish the other. The film is fully aware of its artfulness in a way that enriches the interview segments, which could have easily felt out of place. The interview segments boldly invite comparison with the fictionalised versions, with the performances of the leads holding up admirably as their characters’ motivations and regrets are expressed unambiguously by the men themselves.
AMERICAN ANIMALS is also a slightly different beast to THE IMPOSTER. There is more storytelling skill both required and delivered, and the film feels less flashy and emptily tricksy with the truth. It is arguable whether AMERICAN ANIMALS fully bears its teeth at its subjects, but there is more than enough for the viewer to chew over.