Crime and punishment
Drama-documentary tells inside story of stranger-than-fiction heist
WRITER-DIRECTOR Bart Layton has a bloodhound nose for a good story. In his 2012 documentary
The Imposter he told the tale of a teenager from Spain who convinced a family in Texas that he was their missing child returned.
American Animals finds him with another stranger-than-fiction yarn, one so astonishing that even though he tells it twice, in dramatised and straight documentary forms, you are left wondering if it can possibly be true. But as the intro tells audiences: “This is not based on a true story. It is a true story.”
Layton opens with various parents sitting on sofas wondering where it all went so wrong for their teenage sons. So far, so routine. From there he rewinds to 18 months earlier and we meet art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan), a young man who reckons great lives need grand acts of daring. Spencer has a yen to do a crime and escape the punishment; specifically, steal a first edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America, estimated worth $12million, from a college library.
Spencer tells his friend Warren (Evan Peters) of his plan. Warren, being an excitable sort, seizes on the idea. Two more former high school pals are recruited, preparations are made (“how to pull off a bank heist” is Googled, and movies about robberies are watched), and before you can say, “Are these jokers for real?” we are off to the races.
At the same time as telling the story in dramatised form, Layton cuts back and forth to interviews with the real Spencer, Warren and company. Since the locations are clearly not prison cells you might think this would be the ultimate spoiler. It is testimony to Layton’s ingenuity that it is not. If anything, your curiosity is piqued further.
The side-by-side stories continue to spool out, with Layton becoming more daring, putting the real people beside the actors playing them. As a narrative style it has the potential to go very wrong, but it is done with such wit and skill it adds nicely to the surreality. These are kids, after all, who cannot tell