American Animals Review
Bart Layton showed off his cinematic prowess in his debut film The Imposter five years ago and the British director returns with American Animals, once again blending together feature film and documentary forms to tell his story. Last time he dug out a gem of a tale about French confidence trickster Frédéric Bourdin, while here he concentrates on an equally obscure story about the attempted heist of a collection of precious books from Transylvania University’s library.
American Animals starts boldly enough by making the statement that what we are about to see is not based on a true story, but rather, is a true story. And it doesn’t take long to understand why that is largely accurate. The real-life people involved in the heist are heard throughout the film talking to camera about their recollections, along with occasional appearances from their parents. Layton uses their conflicting perspectives to affect small details of the plot to demonstrate how the passing of time and self-denial often shapes our reality.
While we see the narrative of Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka played out by Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters respectively, Layton cuts back to the two men reflecting on how it all went down. They were both disillusioned with student life at Kentucky’s Transylvania University and dreamed of an event or moment that could add some excitement to their lives. Spencer then sees the University’s rare collection of books – including a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – worth a collective value of around $12 million. A seed has been planted.
In hindsight the men say they were never completely serious about going through with the heist, but regardless a detailed plan is put together with the help of fellow students Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner). Half-hearted or not, nothing stops the momentum and before they know it they are donning old men prosthetics and heading into the university ready to see it through to the bitter end.
Layton has some fun playing around with Spencer and Warren’s (intentionally?) faded memories with more than a few stylistic nods towards Scorsese along the way. All four men involved in the caper appear to show sincere regret for their part played in the job, and their presence adds further depth to good all-round performances from the cast, with Keoghan’s uncertainty growing in tandem with Peters’ urgent sense of desperation.
Running just shy of two hours there’s no doubt American Animals would benefit from being at least 10-15 minutes shorter. It takes some time to reach the heist and slowly wanders around the houses towards its ending. The point is made that these appear to be decent enough young men who simply made a terrible judgement they aren’t able to explain. But Layton doesn’t seem interested in looking at the reasons why either, only lightly suggesting their actions may have been fuelled by a realisation that life post-high school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Perhaps Layton’s film tries to be a little too clever for its own good in the end but he once again demonstrates the visual flair that made The Imposter so appealing. At times it teeters on the edge of being style-over-substance but his grip on the reigns are secured by good casting and an intriguing story, even if you know it is all going to end in tears. More insight on the boy's motivations behind the heist could have turned American Animals into something more, but it remains a perfectly fine crime film regardless.