The heist genre is one that’s been done to death, but with American Animals, filmmaker Bart Layton manages to pull off something wholly unique. Best known as the director behind the wildly entertaining documentary The Imposter, Layton brings his non-fiction background with him to his first narrative feature film, interlacing the movie’s fictional portrayal of events with interviews with the real-life subjects. The effect is engaging, offering a self-reflection not often seen in crime films, and while the movie ends up hollow in some spots, the cast is terrific and Layton announces himself as a filmmaker to watch.
When American Animals begins, text appears on the screen stating “This Is Not Based on a True Story,” but after a few seconds the “Not Based on” drops out, and we’re left with “This Is a True Story.” The film chronicles the real-life heist of precious rare books from Transylvania University in 2004 Kentucky, pulled off by a quartet of mostly well-off college students. The central mastermind duo behind the heist is Spencer (Barry Keoghan), a talented young art student, and his adrenaline-fueled troublemaking best friend Warren (Evan Peters). First pitched as something of a joke, the two begin to meticulously plan a heist of a couple of rare books kept in a secure library on the Transylvania University campus. Spencer is spurred by the notion that all great artists had to endure some kind of hardship to become great, and he’s lived a perfectly nice family life. Warren, meanwhile, is a bit of a free spirit, spurred to act mostly out of the desire to see if they could actually pull this off.
From the get-go, Layton establishes a slick framing device that sets this movie apart. Keoghan—who had a tremendous 2017 with breakout turns in Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer—may start a sentence as Spencer, but the camera will then swiftly move right to reveal the real Spencer, finishing the character’s sentence. All of the major players involved in the real-life heist show up as part of these interviews, and it’s kind of like I, Tonya if the framing interviews were the real people. American Animals uses this device to address the idea that one individual’s recollection of events may be completely different than another’s, but more importantly it adds a layer of self-reflexivity that’s much welcomed.
Indeed, the biggest turnoff of American Animals is we don’t really understand why these idiot college students did what they did. It was a flawed plan from the get-go, they weren’t particularly hurting for money, and one of them came from a supremely wealthy family. So it’s hard to get invested in the planning of the heist—which takes up the bulk of the film—when you don’t really care if these guys succeed or not. It’s here where the interviews play the most crucial role, as the real-life counterparts in hindsight provide perspective regarding just how idiotic and harmful this whole pie-in-the-sky idea really was.
In some ways American Animals is about privilege, and how some folks just don’t know how good they have it, but it’s also very much invested in being an entertaining heist movie. Layton succeeds from a visuals and style point of view, and I even found myself thinking halfway through the film that this is the kind of guy who goes on to direct a Marvel movie, given the trend of promising Sundance breakout directors making the leap to big-budget territory. Layton certainly has visual storytelling chops, and the cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland is alluring and evocative.
The performances elevate American Animals as well, and the film is further proof that Evan Peters should be a movie star. The guy has shown tremendous range on the small screen with American Horror Story, and here he gets the chance to shine in a co-lead feature film role. And shine he does, as he layers Warren with the dangerous cocktail of insecurity and overcompensation that no doubt had something to do with his steadfastness in pulling this heist off, at any cost. Keoghan similarly proves he’s one of the most talented young performers working today, and Blake Jenner does swell work in a smaller supporting role.