by Hope Madden
In 2012, director Bart Layton laid down one of the most compelling and nutty documentaries in recent history. His true crime doc The Imposter was one of those rare films that you could not predict nor could you turn away from. It was fascinating, and not just because the story was so wild, but because of Layton’s spry skills as a storyteller.
He’s again pulling from the world of true crime to tell a potent story with his latest, the narrative feature American Animals. The yarn he spins here: four perfectly reasonable, likable, comfortable college kids steal a set of pricey books from Transylvania University’s rare books collection, including Darwin’s original Origins of the Species and Audubon’s Birds of America.
The audacity of the plan itself is reason enough to pay attention. Buddies get the itch to do something big. Something life-changing. Consequences be damned. Or, more rightly, ignored.
Build from there with a truly talented group of young actors: Evan Peters (X-Men’s Quicksilver), Barry Keoghan (Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk – the kid can do no wrong), Jared Abrahamson (Sweet Virginia, Detour) and Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some).
Layton opens with text on screen: This is not based on a true story. The words “not based on” disappear, leaving: This is a true story.
A bold statement to make, and American Animals is as interested in the effect individual perspective plays on true stories as Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya or Sarah Polley’s near-perfect 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell.
Once again, Layton blends fiction and nonfiction devices to question the possibility of honesty in storytelling. As he weaves from actors recreating the heist to the actual participants telling their versions of events, Layton poses intriguing questions about perspective and truth.
They aren’t questions he answers, though, or even truly explores.
The film works best when it digs into the American preoccupation with unlimited potential, the individual’s specialness. The four young men who risk their futures unnecessarily suffer from that curse of the restlessly entitled.
As you watch the inevitable collapse of a reckless gang of kids’ movie-inspired heist, American Animals suggests depth and introspection but feels more like it’s grasping for a suitable ending, an appropriate way to cap all this madness with a bit of insight.
The problem with the film is the problem with the heist itself: it was fun while it lasted, but was there really a purpose?