There’s this feeling that infuses all youth; a feeling that something at some point from somewhere will happen and their lives will rise up out of the banal to become extraordinary. That feeling can turn into a sense of existential dread that ascends within us as we begin to realize that we’re not destined for glorious purpose. And that’s the part that kills the soul. That’s what makes each of us face our mortality in a way that sucks the joy out of the simple things and can drive us to do crazy things. Bart Layton’s feature-debut, American Animals, suggests that it’s this fear of being ordinary that drove four young men to rob the Transylvania University Library of several books valued over $12 Million on December 17, 2004. One part documentary and one part dramatization, Layton doesn’t strive to provide a solid reasoning for the robbery nor does he attempt to absolve the men for their crimes; rather, Layton presents the equally hilarious and melancholic story of four lost boys who did wrong.
Spencer Reinhard (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (American Horror Story’s Evan Peters) were childhood friends who, while finding themselves at different colleges, were feeling equally adrift in their lives. After taking a tour of the Special Collections section of his school’s library, Spencer off-handedly mentions to Warren the high value books that are cared for there, the low security protecting it, and the ease by which someone could steal millions of dollars in books. Thus begins the mental exercise of how they would go about pulling off such a caper, until they find themselves having recruited two more associates – Eric Borsuk (Traveler’s Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (The Edge of Seventeen’s Blake Jenner) – buying disguises, and standing at the Special Collections’ door. A story of brazen daring accomplished by fools, American Animals recounts one of the strangest robberies in U.S. history.
One of the most interesting aspects of American Animals is also the one most likely to segment audiences. This is a film about a crime, but it’s not a caper romp in the vein of Ocean’s 11 (1960) or The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) nor is it a dramatic heist a la The Usual Suspects and Reservoir Dogs. Instead, Layton crafts a unique hybrid – something that’s simultaneously hyperreal and dramatized non-fiction – a dramedy that’s actualized by integrating the dramatized world of American Animals with interviews from the original participants. It’s a balancing act that’ll work for some and distract the hell out of others, but it’s a highly commendable approach for a story that’s without a clear identifiable catalyst due to the differing recollections of Spencer, Warren, Eric, and Chas. Once you get used to American Animals mutability, though, you’ll find yourselves riveted to your seat.
Describing the film as fluid only partial explains how American Animals functions to tell its tale. Since Spencer and Warren see themselves as individuals breaking free from an ordinary life, they envision themselves as on some great journey. As such, elements of their retelling take on the fantastical, frequently-meta components of the inspirations for the heist. Another way to put it, Layton presents Spencer and Warren as kids playing at being adults by constructing a scenario in their minds that makes them the heroes of an absurd tale. For example, as they discuss the execution of the heist itself, the audience is privy to Warren’s vision of events – the boys dressed in black suits, hair slicked-back, moving in unison to detain the librarian and secure the books with ease. It’s choreographed, shot, and given musical accompaniment (Elvis’s “A Little Less Conversation”) that feels ripped straight out of the updated Ocean’s 11. Another particularly great piece of camerawork from Layton appears twice in the film as a shot of Warren waiting by the side of the road dressed in disguise, the camera pushing in on him in a nod to Christopher Nolan’s initial introduction of The Joker in The Dark Knight, itself a film heavily influenced by Michael Mann’s Heat. Is Warren an Agent of Chaos or just a kid looking for purpose? These are just two of many moments Layton inserts within American Animals to demonstrate how much these boys drew from fantasy without thinking of the reality. But it’s truly more than that. Layton weaves Warren and Spencer’s cinematic inspirations within the actor/real-person dichotomy, presenting a study in perspective which pervades the entire film.
Perspective is the key to American Animals. From one point of view, the story is a silly fantasy of bored kids looking for meaning. As such, when Spencer and Warren travel to New York City to meet a fence, their retelling of the events make it look like two friends on a weekend getaway enjoying booze, women, and the sights of NYC. Within that POV, however, the details get murky, even changing in real-time before the audience as Spencer recounts one version of meeting their contact, only to molt into a new shape or color during Warren’s. These are little details brought to life by the mesh of a clever script and editing, making American Animals feel safe. Later, however, when the heist is complete and the four culprits must deal with the reality of their actions, Layton melds the perspective of past and present together, overlaying dialogue from the real perpetrators over the actors as time and space fold in, much as the proverbial walls are doing within the film. Rather than feeling like a shallow dramatization, it’s an emotionally evocative moment as we bear witness to the two timelines converging amid their individual and sudden realization of the crime committed, as though Layton wants the wisdom of experience to reverberate to the past to somehow prevent the heist from ever taking place.
Without a doubt, American Animals is going to surprise people. It’s a strange, semi-artistic, semi-silly, semi-straight docu-drama that follows four young men make the dumbest decision of their life and the ripple it has on those around them. Layton’s script beautifully bends reality to compose an engaging narrative and his direction is miles ahead of what you’d expect from a feature-debut. His movements are thoughtful, artistic, and, when necessary, clearly on point with the homages. None of this could be accomplished on a whim. On the other side of that are the fantastic performances from the four leads. Keoghan and Peters are the backbone of the story, brilliantly portraying two individuals who seem to be playing chicken with destiny out of fear of inaction. Abrahamson presents the slightly anti-social Eric as less cold and dissociative and more calculating while aware of the human factor. Jenner, however, is the standout of the entire film despite being on-screen for the least amount of time. In one brief sequence, as things are unraveling for the quartet, Jenner’s delivery of a monologue will knock the absolute wind right out of you. It’s but one small display of greatest in a film of filled with entertaining sequences and great performances that will render you speechless.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.