'American Animals' Is Part True Crime Doc, Part Heist Flick... But Mostly It's A Masterpiece
American Animals isn’t a movie that I want to review. It’s a movie I want you to see already, so we can sit down over beers and chat about it. We’d probably talk over each other, passionately restating the moments that wowed us. We might slap the table occasionally for emphasis. What I mean is: I don’t want to have to avoid spoilers — I wanna dissect the minutiae with people who are as impressed with this film as I am.
But I know what my job is, and I’m not going to spoil you. That’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, and in fact, the entire film is ultimately about those lines that shouldn’t ever be crossed. So I guess I’ve learned my lesson. Instead, let me talk about what makes this movie so damned impressive.
The director, Bart Layton, has largely worked in the documentary realm. You may have seen his award-winning 2012 documentary The Imposter (for the record, I haven’t but I plan to rectify that ASAP). This movie, however, was entered in the SXSW Conference as a “narrative feature” and perhaps the greatest trick up its sleeve is how deftly it weaves together different genres. It is a narrative feature — at times a breezy low-stakes heist flick, at times something darker. It’s also a true crime doc of sorts, with interview footage from the real people interspersed with recreations of the events.
The film tells the story of four college students (Warren, Spencer, Chas, and Eric) who plan to steal millions of dollars worth of rare books from a college library and fence them to a buyer in Amsterdam. Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson portray the boys, but Layton has a lofty goal in mind with the narrative sections of the film. He explores the effects of memory on the truth and lets conflicting accounts of the events (as told by the real Warren, Spencer, Chas, and Eric) play out on screen. Some details are small: Did that conversation actually happen during a car ride? Did that contact they met with in New York City wear a scarf? The narrative portions become an illustration of the history as told by the real participants, with their own biases and uncertainties baked in, and the way Layton pulls it off is a technically impressive feat.
Why the boys decide to steal the books is almost beside the point. Perhaps the only cure for their dissatisfaction with their lives is to break their world apart. To trespass across those lines that shouldn’t be crossed. To wear silly disguises and be something more than anyone could suspect. The film capably guides the viewers through the fun, Ocean’s Eleven-esque planning stages (the boys literally watch a stack of heist movie DVDs for inspiration), but it doesn’t remain so lighthearted. This is a narrative film, but it’s also a true story with real consequences. We, the viewers, get to experience that shift back toward reality along with the characters, while watching the impact of those choices of yesteryear ripple across the faces of the real Warren, Spencer, Chas, and Eric.
You could Google the case and read about what happens. Even so, I don’t want to tell you. American Animals is one of the most confidently executed films I’ve ever seen, and in the end, the details of the case, like the uncertainty of memory, isn’t the point. The emotional journey these men go on, and the journey Layton guides us through as the audience, is the thing. To me, the film is about that moment in time when you learn that the mistakes you make aren’t just hurting you. It’s about realizing that the line is there to protect others.
So when you can, watch this movie and then meet me at the bar with all your theories. I really need someone to talk to about this one.