Bart Layton made his name with the thrilling, highly original 2012 documentary The Impostor, mixing talking heads with dramatic reconstructions to tell a bizarre, larger than life tale. With his follow up, American Animals, the docu-drama format is shifted far more heavily in favour of the drama, an exciting and experimental examination of a real-life heist and the unreliability of memory. Talking head perpetrator and witness testimonies are mixed in with the action to create a crime story with a very real and immediate set of stakes and consequences, completed with a clear eyed and admirable sense of morality from Layton.
Opening with interviews with the two real ‘masterminds’ behind the 2004 Transy Book Heist (a funny name for a serious crime), Spencer Reinhardt and Warren Lipka, American Animals then quickly switches gears into a stylish thriller. Spencer (now played by Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) are bored upper middle class students at Transylvania University in Kentucky who want to change their lives, to be special. Transfixed by the multi-million dollar first editions in their library’s special collection, particularly Audobon’s Birds of America and Darwin’s Origins of Species, they set in motion a movie-inspired heist.
Wisely, Layton doesn’t ask us to have too much sympathy for the boys. Instead, he makes it very clear that the figures deserving of pity were their shocked families and, especially, the librarian Betty Jean (Ann Dowd), who Warren and fellow robber Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) tased and tied up as she guarded the books. Harming a human being is a moral violation quite apart from stealing valuable artefacts from a wealthy institution, and to do so simply for kicks, as these rich kids did, is hardly relatable. Layton lets the real robbers explain themselves and their regrets (Warren in particular seems genuinely remorseful), but leaves the last words for Betty Jean.
American Animals never lets its story get stale, and even in its slower moments it’s got enough style and fun music to stay energetic and engaging. Incredible editing lets scenes change on the fly as Spencer and Warren’s recollections clash, from little details like the colour of a shady contact’s scarf to entire scenes changing locations. Almost all of these shifts are done in camera without a visible cut, impressively recreating the sensation of an unreliable, mutable memory. There’s a highly enjoyable sequence in which the boys imagine a smooth, effortless heist, shot and choreographed in a style that’s pure Ocean’s 11, and makes the real thing that much more gripping.
In actuality, despite all their research and genre savvy, this makeshift team (rounded out by angry jock getaway driver Chas Allen, played by Blake Jenner), had almost no idea what they were doing, and that unpredictable ineptitude adds a huge amount of tension. There’s always the potential for a disastrous mistake that endangers everyone involved, and the physical difference between the smiling, graceful figures in the imagined heist and the pallid, nauseous reality is striking. More and more grey seeps into the colour palette as the point of no return approaches, these characters trapped by history in an unnecessary prison.
Though the script is peppered with crime movie clichés, its grounding in reality makes it more compelling than many of its more generic genre peers, and the lead duo are great value. Keoghan, after his banner 2017 of brilliant supporting performances in Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer, is powerful but anxious in the lead and Peters is riveting. His wild energy as Warren is irresistible, and you fully understand how this gang followed him into such an ill-advised operation, Peters’s experience playing cult leaders in season 7 of American Horror Story translating to the big screen.
With a reliance on interviews with real people but never falling into pure documentary territory, American Animals is a unique proposition, and you’ve certainly never seen a crime film quite like it before. It might not have the complexity or excitement of the very best heist movies – its commitment to realism is a double edged sword – but as an intersection of information and entertainment, it maintains a superb, assured balance.