Director Bart layton
cast Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner
plot Kentucky 2004. following a tour of his school’s rare book collection, spencer (Keoghan) and pal Warren (Peters) hatch a plot to steal the most valuable items. With two new recruits (Abrahamson, Jenner), can they realise their audacious plan? At the beginning of bart Layton’s American Animals we are cheekily told, “this is not based on a true story”, before the words “not based on” are erased from the screen. Like Layton’s calling card, The Imposter, American Animals has a ball with the tension between truth and fiction. grabbing hold of a true story about four college kids’ plot to steal rare books — chiefly John James Audubon’s Birds Of America and Darwin’s Origin Of The Species — from a Kentucky university library, Layton fashions a knowing, blistering mix of heist flick and true-crime documentary, fizzing on filmmaking fireworks in the first half before morphing into something more serious and affecting as the stakes get higher.
if docudrama is usually driven by talking heads illustrated by dramatic reconstructions, American Animals switches things up and lets the drama dominate, interrupted by contradictions and contributions from the real-life participants. this doesn’t just mean the real-life players commenting on the events, but also seamlessly interacting with the action, even sharing scenes with their fictionalised counterparts. it’s a film about the dynamic between objectivity and subjectivity but wears this arthouse conceit very lightly. Layton blurs the lines of memory and truth in increasingly playful ways, where the colour of a scarf takes on increasing significance.
When he gets to the narrative portions, Layton zips through classic heist movie scenarios — the planning, building the team, finding a fence (Udo Kier) in Amsterdam — enlivened with cinematic trickery, be it upside-down tracking shots or POVS from inside search engines. it’s also a film alive to crime movie history, from its criminals holding their own heist movie festival to calling each other by coloured monickers (of course there’s an argument about Mr Pink) to a sly parody of Ocean’s 11 as they envisage how the robbery might go down. this isn’t referencing; it is, aptly enough, blatant stealing from the crime greats and having tons of fun with the stolen goods.
On the debit side, the film’s four criminals feel underwritten — especially latecomers eric (Abrahamson) and Chas (Jenner) — but get by on the performances; X-men’s Peters gives Warren swagger and chutzpah and Keoghan (the kid on Mark Rylance’s boat in Dunkirk) is the film’s soulful centre as the wannabe artist who feels something is missing. American Animals clearly makes the point that the crime isn’t driven by greed; it’s the product of a generational malaise, of kids brought up to believe they could achieve anything so have to go even further to feel special. As the moviemovie heist becomes a reality, Layton strips away the show-offness. You miss the energy but its replaced by something more human. by the end, American Animals finds its truth. Or does it?
Verdict American Animals is sharp, smart, often bravura filmmaking, a terrifically entertaining mix of fast facts and pulp fiction. but beneath the flash is a sad story of teens who feel their lives simply aren’t good enough.
★★★★ OUT 7 September CERT 15 / 117 mins
They never missed the chance to take advantage of a BOGOF deal.