Crime and pun­ish­ment

Drama-doc­u­men­tary tells in­side story of stranger-than-fiction heist

The Herald Magazine - - Arts CINEMA - ALISON ROWAT

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

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