Bart Layton’s American Animals is heist a movie predicated on a love of heist movies. An all-encompassing love that includes everything from Ocean’s 11 to Riffi. It is an homage and a celebration of a genre rooted in a very real story. It’s the most fun I’ve had at the movies in the last few weeks.
Layton seems fascinated not by the truth, so much as the illusion of truth itself. A search for ecstatic beauty in a medium that relies on duplicity and lies. Movies are not facts; that is why they are called movies. But they contain truth within them.
Tongue planted firmly in cheek American Animals tells the raucous, somewhat indulgent story, of four college boys. Warren (Evan Peters), Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Eric (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner). We begin with Spencer, an aspiring artist who dreams of having a transformative experience. By the end, Spencer and his friends attempt to steal original prints of Audubon bird drawings and other rare books from Transylvania University.
Layton brings in the actual people themselves to narrate and opine on the events as they occur. American Animals begins to question itself whether certain events happen as the boys claim they did. An energy hums along underneath the first act as Layton seems giddy with the endless possibilities having multiple points of view can offer.
Warren and Spencer discuss how the idea to steal the Audubon prints came about at a gas station. While Spencer goes inside, Layton pans the camera back to the car. Inside sits Peters as Warren and the actual Warren himself, as they discuss the veracity of what just transpired. These moments are peppered throughout most of the beginning of the movie.
Layton and Ole Bratt Birkeland, his cameraman, open American Animals with upside-down shots. We are given a skewed perspective of the Lexington, Kentucky suburbs. From the offset, we are cued into thinking about unreliable narrators.
American Animals is dotted with homages and callbacks to a litany of heist movies. The beauty of these homages is, for once, that they are rooted in the story. Warren and Spencer love heist movies. They binge watch dozens of movies to help prepare for the robbery. They cite movies as they lay out their plan. Warren hands out code-names to the other boys, names he’s taken from Reservoir Dogs. Chas points out how unnecessary it is while Spencer realizes everybody dies in the end. Cut to the actual Eric as he offers his opinion, not just on Reservoir Dogs, but Tarintino as an artist.
American Animals looks at how movies, a mass art, are consumed by the masses. Not just consumed, but how they are digested by us. It never occurs to Warren or Spencer that movies and life might be two wildly different things. They make models, case the library, draw intricate layouts, and even don disguises. But whenever the talk comes to what is to be done with the lone librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) stationed in the room, the conversation stills. Layton is tickled, as was I, that in a genre that is littered with armed security and high tech security systems, these four college boys were stumped by a little old lady.
Ann Dowd belongs to a holy order of actresses with the likes of Kathy Bates, June Squibb, Margo Martindale, and Angela Bassett. She has an ability to deliver dialogue in such a naturalistic way you question whether or not she is acting. A genial force of nature she excitedly, proudly, and unsuspectingly, gives the boys a tour of the rare books room.
Peters, Keoghan, Abrahamson, and Jenner sell four boys so desperate for an adventure they don’t even see the oncoming collateral damage. Keoghan as Spencer is the genesis but also the Greek chorus. He wants the dramatic moment but as events begin to unfold he lacks the will to stop them. Layton talks to the actual Spencer and he regrets not putting a stop to it. “I kept waiting for something to put a stop to it. For some insurmountable obstacle to make us stop.”
Layton’s previous feature was a documentary called The Imposter. A young boy vanishes only to reappear years later. It is revealed—the name alone insinuates as much—that the prodigal return is an imposter. But the story takes a bizarre turn when the imposter implies he thinks the boy was murdered because of the way the family treated him.
Stories are points of view. The best stories are the ones who recognize either whose point of view they are from or that multiple truths exist and we’re just trying to agree who wore what to wear. Layton seems mystified by how we internalize past events and turn memories into facts. The boy from The Imposter, who has admitted to being a conman, can’t understand why the boy’s family wouldn’t trust him.
Layton talks to not just the boys, but the parents, and the investigator as well. Truth is as much belief as it is disbelief. Spencer blames Warren for suggesting the idea. Warren points the finger at Spencer. There is enough blame to go around but as Kurosawa showed us, the narrator is always the hero. Warren is a troubled boy who seeks a kind of validation he feels can’t be found in Lexington. All the boys do. So involved in their own existential torment it never occurs to them that if they can plot a heist then surely they could do something else as equally impressive.
Warren goes to Luxembourg to meet with a fence to arrange a sale of the Audubon prints. Every time the boys reach a hurdle he flies off in a rage. He wants to do something real. Warren ignores the fact that he was able to go across the world on a whim; Spencer paid for half the ticket. He discounts his experience because it was only related to the heist. They can’t stop because preparation doesn’t mean anything without execution.
Only later do the other boys confess there’s no real way to prove that Warren went to Luxembourg. Spencer says it’s possible he may not have. The other two are sure he didn’t. When asked about it the real Warren merely shrugs. “You’ll just have to take my word for it.”
American Animals is all surface, but it’s such a glossy wonderfully put together surface it doesn’t really matter. Although the gee-whiz narrative style peters out after about thirty minutes much to my chagrin. From there it becomes much more of a standard narrative heist movie. But Layton is so good at keeping the momentum going that I didn’t really mind. Warren imagines pulling the heist off perfectly in his head to Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” as Layton and Birkeland glide the camera through the scene as if it was a waltz.
I appreciated how Layton made sure to capture the boy’s arrogance contrasted with the now grown men’s regret and their moral mea culpa. For me, the fascinating thing was how utterly remorseful the men felt about their treatment of “BJ” the librarian. Filled with a deep remorse and shame the men seem in shock at what they are capable of. The boys tased her, zip-tied her hands and feet together, duct taped her mouth shut, and yelled at her.
BJ is even interviewed and she is baffled as to what drives people to do such things to other people. The fact that Layton spends so much time on the boy’s momentary lapse of moral judgment makes me forgive the minor flaws American Animals might have.
American Animals is at times goofy but nevertheless, its taut structure is never undermined. I wish it had stayed with its unpredictable multiple narratives throughout, but what it does do is more than serviceable. It’s never more than what it pretends to be. But it does have a moral center. Layton argues people often mistake fiction for truth; dramatizations are not real life.
Layton does not argue, however, that truth does not exist; it’s just a little hard to find sometimes. More often than not it tends to be less about what words are used and more about the actions which are taken. Just ask BJ.