DIR/WRI: Bart Layton • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Julian Hart • MUS: Anne Nikitin • DES: Scott Dougan • PRO: Arcadiy Golubovich, Macdara Kelleher, Jonathan Loughran, Tim O’Hair • CAST: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier, Ann Dowd
From its very first title card, American Animals boasts of its historical accuracy. ‘This is not based on a true story’ appears on the screen, only for the ‘not based on’ to be dropped to read ‘This is a true story. American Animals is the first fictional feature film from filmmaker Bart Layton, who is most famous for the 2012 documentary The Imposter. The Imposter tells the unbelievable true story of a French man impersonating a missing Texas teenager and being accepted by the boy’s family despite being seven years older, speaking with a French accent and not matching his physical description at all.
While American Animals might not be as outrageous as The Imposter, it is still hard to fathom why four college kids would risk their futures to steal a handful of rare books from their University – the university in question is the Transylvania University in Lexington Kentucky. Granted, the score would garner them a couple of million dollars but as the plan escalates and complicates they are given plenty of time to back out of a pipe dream, but they never do.
Spencer (Keoghan), an art student, comes into contact with the rare books on a tour of his new campus. He mentions them to his best friend Warren (Peters) and the wheels of disaster are set in motion. This is also the point of the film where the ‘true story’ becomes complicated. Layton structures American Animals in the vein of a docu-drama. Interspersed with fictional scenes are interviews with the actual culprits of the heist. It is a technique not unlike the one used by Scottish filmmaker Kevin MacDonald for Touching the Void (2003). Layton, however, focuses more on the fictionalised scenes, using the interviews as punctuation.
More recently, Craig Gillespie employed a technique like this one for his film I, Tonya (2017), yet another unbelievable true story about a working-class ice skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie in an Oscar-nominated performance) who gets embroiled in an assault scandal which effectively ruins her career. In I, Tonya, however, the interviews are played by the actors and Gillespie is toying with the idea of a fictional film ‘based on a true story’. A line spoken by Robbie’s Harding towards the end of the film is indicative of this: ‘There is no truth, it’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth and life just does whatever the fuck it wants’. Using the actual perpetrators of the crime it is clear that Layton wants to get to some sort of truth. However, Layton also recognises that memory and perception are objective and his subjects have different memories of the same event. This is highlighted in the film through different re-enactments of the same scene and interviewees doubting that some events actually took place.
Layton serves up a multitude of hypotheses why these four young men did what they did, among them, middle-class boredom, millennial entitlement, not wanting the same ‘boring’ lives as their parents and a subconscious yearning for notoriety. None of which endears anybody to these young men. This is a problem that many critics have with the film, and it’s an age old trope in cinema, the glorification of the bandit. Yes, the fictionalised scenes are stylised in such a way to make these young men look cool, funny and engaging but these are offset by the genuine emotion of the interviews where regret is deeply expressed. What is most interesting is that these guys still don’t seem to be able to answer in any definite way why they did what they did. The film also contains a lot of references to heist films, namely Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), which can serve to glorify the modus operandi of the young men. It may also at times make light of an event which caused trauma to people so recently. However, Layton has a counter-argument and American Animals is a multi-faceted piece of work, which is accentuated by the film’s sobering final act.
Special mention must be given to the performance of young Irish rising star Barry Keoghan. While his performance, vocally, is very close to his chilling turn as the antagonist in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), his magnetism on screen is undeniable.