Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
American Animals comes from director Bart Layton, whose most famous piece of work is the 2012 documentary The Imposter which still remains one of the best documentaries to have come out in recent years. Translating those same skills from a documentary background, it’s refreshing to see Bart Layton’s experience give his latest piece American Animals, an original and different dynamic to most films that are based on true events.
The story follows the life of Spencer, who after getting into Transylvania University, notices that there is an on-campus library that boasts a variety of extremely rare books. His slightly unhinged friend Warren devises a plan to steal the books and sell them on the black market for money. Similar to a technique that featured in the film I, Tonya, which used reenactments of interviews from real-life people involved in the biographical-drama, American Animals takes it a step further by including interviews with real-life people that were actually involved in the heist to drive the story.
This is an interesting narrative device because with any retellings of events, human’s memories are subjective and as such remain limited to showing the truth to the eye of the beholder. Bart Layton takes advantage of this by taking moments where the interviewees don’t agree on how events unfolded, to show different sides of the same story. This effect not only builds characterization but also brings about moments of comedy at how different people viewed the events that unfolded.
Another different element that helps to blur this line between documentary and fictional crime drama, is the heavyweight actors who play two of the four boys in the reenactment. Most notably is Evan Peters who plays “mastermind” Warren. His previous work in TV series American Horror Story and as the unconventional mutant Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, sets him up as the perfect person to play Warren. Warren came up with the plan for the heist by watching famous heist films, and his wild stories and set-ups to meet potential dealers who can help get rid of the books is portrayed perfectly by Evan Peters as he manages to carefully straddle that line between sanity and crazy.
Playing the more level-headed but easily influenced Spencer is Barry Keoghan who often plays troubled characters in heavy dramas like The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Dunkirk. This is a slightly different character for him, as Spencer is simply bored with life when he decides to jump onboard Warren’s crazy plan. Nevertheless, Barry Keoghan manages to capture perfectly Spencer’s guilty conscience as the day of the heist draws closer, and his hopes for something will go wrong become more prudent.
Bart Layton takes an incredible, crazy true story and turns it into an entertaining piece of modern cinema with a unique approach to presentation. He not only captures the bizarreness of the wild situations that the characters are put in but also makes a comment on people and their questionable recollection of events from memory. Bart Layton uses a range of techniques such as including the real-life people involved in the story and rewinding the film to retell situations from different perspectives that make the film fun to watch.
American Animals is an original story, told in an original way, and well worth taking the time to view it. See it.