As a piece of filmmaking, American Animals is as audacious as the noughties heist it both dramatises and documents. It is, mercifully, a great deal sharper and more intelligent than that foiled plot, weaving a story that compels and excites, whilst reflecting on the very nature of white male privilege. Gripping stuff.
The film concerns the attempt of four students to steal the valuable book collection – including a copy of Darwin’s Origins of Species, from which this takes its name – of Kentucky’s Transylvania University Library in 2004. Each in the quartet shared a sense of discontent within their notionally perfect lives. Barry Keoghan, so powerful in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer Reinhard, a promising young man who believes his artistic talent is quashed by his not having had ‘a life-altering experience’. Evan Peters is his jock friend Warren, whose failure to capitalise on a sports scholarship epitomises his wasted youth. Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson join late, as Chas and Eric, a duo brought in for their Oceans-esque skills in logistics and getaway driving.
This is, however, no Soderbergh fantasy. As a wry opening title reveals, American Animals is a despicably true story; one born from the imaginations of young, white men who have, indeed, seen too many heist movies. They watch Rifiti for research and take their codenames from Reservoir Dogs: ‘Didn’t they all die in the end of that movie?’ Says Spencer. Director Bart Layton’s first feature was The Imposter, a documentary in which brief dramatisations were sprinkled across a film focussed on interviews and archive footage. American Animals is its glorious mirror reverse.
Reminiscent of a cross between Touching the Void and The 15:17 to Paris, the film is an almost entirely biographical drama, unveiled in a format not unlike I, Tonya, but tells its story with an eye and ear for the fallibility of narrational subjectivity via interspersed interviews from the real-life protagonists. Throughout the film, stylistic returns are made to the present day, in which the actual Spencer and company tell their versions of the truth. Rather than simple cutbacks, the links are achieved with an ingenious fluidity. In one scene Warren turns to his future real self, suddenly present within his car, and asks: ‘is this how you remember it?’ The reply: ‘Not exactly…’
Much of the film’s appeal, beyond its intrinsically compelling story, is the joy with which Layton flexes his creative muscles. There’s wit in his early visual acknowledgement that the film’s format is a shaken up alternative to normative expectation – through footage that has been literally turned upside down – whilst more conventional fun lies in his execution of the heist-typical planning sequence: Layton’s camera drops with the group’s model of the library before montaging into the actual space and a hugely entertaining sequence to an Elvis soundtrack. The execution of the robbery itself, meanwhile, is a tense as could be hoped. In parallel with the film’s characters, Anne Nikitin’s synthetic score seems to search for an eruptive boat-rocking intensity but never finds it – she, at least, by intent.
Unlike most heist films, American Animals does not encourage audiences to root for sympathetic rogues. Though often grimly likeable, Spencer and Warren are no Bonnie and Clyde – their antagonist is, after all, a perfectly reasonable librarian (The Handmaid’s Tale’s Ann Dowd). A downbeat final stretch is brave but effective in exploring the group’s guilt and post-crime paranoia. Layton’s film revels in its dabbling of fact and fiction from start to end but the final emotional wallop is unquestionably, intensely, real.