American Animals (2018) Dir. Bart Layton
Covering the story of a real-life robbery committed by four students, American Animals opens with their preparation for the eventful heist before flashbacking to how they came to this dangerous predicament in the first place.
Combing tones to great effect, the recreated drama of 2004 of American Animals is interspersed with interview content from the actual people – who narrate specific parts of the incident – giving it a documentary feel. The film sees Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) as Spencer Reinhard, a misunderstood (and bored) art student coerced into a shady scheme by his wayward childhood pal Warren Lipka, played by X-Men’s Quicksilver Evan Peters.
Peters’ best friend could be an over-the-top caricature, that is until we see the interview with the real life Lipka – weirdly reminiscent of Samurai Cop’s Matt Hannon – who demonstrates his true wild side with his comedy T-Rex tattoo and quirky demeanour. The two adolescents hatch (or accidentally fall into depending on who you believe) a plan to steal a valuable edition of John James Audubon's The Birds of America from their University library and make money by selling them on the black market.
Like 2018’s “I, Tonya”, the film mixes media as we explore alternative viewpoints of the same story. Recollections of background events differ from person to person and at times, the real participants replace the actors by being edited into the dramatic part of the movie itself.
Alongside this, the film comments on crime movies itself. It often changes its style, referencing famous celluloid heists. It switches its colour palette and one scene is even a clear pastiche of Steven Soderbergh’s glossy Ocean Eleven – with its slick one-take camera moves and Vegas Elvis soundtrack. Away from the stylistic techniques, there are also great performances from the two leads rounded out with the inclusion of Blake Jenner as Chas Allen and Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk who fill spots on the heist team’s roster.
And before long we return to the cine-literate influences as the group are given names from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Heck, there’s even a very specific nod to The Dark Knight’s Joker introduction shot. But all these geeky references are not at the expense of an interesting narrative. Whilst the customary plans are being mapped out and surveillance undertaken, the dialogue moves from the planning to questions about America’s past. Information about the USA being the fattest nation on earth is discussed and the appearance of a burning supermarket trolley explore the West’s commercialism and propensity for destruction.
However, the movie’s focus on evolutionary paintings and nature contrasts with this modern discourse. However, it attempts to link both the past and the present and the developments we undergo as we come of age. And the filmmaker deftly proposes this can be applied to the stories we tell. By this, the narrative itself evolves and as the unreliable narrators continue, the film even stops and rewinds like Haneke’s Funny Games. The heist disguises change the youngsters into old men but we clearly see them failing to grow up and take responsibility for their decisions.
As the story continues, the actual heist confounds expectations and takes a tonal shift into darker territory. Natural instincts like worry, sweating and vomiting are edited against grotesque violence. And the boys truly find out that life is not like the movies.
With the real-life protagonists expressing deep remorse for their actions – whilst still disagreeing on many of the details of the incidents years later – the ending of the film wraps up the various strands and is far more complex than a regular Hollywood heist.
The film opens with a title-card stating “This Is Not a True Story” – before the word “not” fades out – showing its obsessions with diverging stories from days gone by. But the boys finally go through one more stage of evolution as they survive their ordeal despite not being the fittest of the pack. And like the characters, the film itself grows up and delivers a beautiful, fun and at times deadly serious look at the theft of maturity.