American Animals: The balance between documentary and narrative paints the perfect picture in this absorbing, bold, skilfully made, arresting heist movie.
When the film opens we are presented with a statement: This is not based on a true story. As ‘not based on’ dissolves off the screen, it reveals a new statement: This is a true story. When I saw this I knew I was in for something special, and I wasn’t wrong.
Flying from the US to the UK, writer / director Bart Layton read an article in the in-house magazine about four students, who attempt to rob a university library of their most valuable books.
For the director of the chilling documentary The Imposter, he instinctively knew there was a story to be told.
These home grown Kentucky university students are dissatisfied, and perhaps a little too idealistic. All come from good backgrounds, they have middleclass parents, and loving families. Perhaps the problem is, they don’t have one! Living under the shadow of success, the expectations to fulfil the American dream are high.
Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is an artist, he is under the impression that to have any artistic significance, he needs to fulfil a real life experience to make his work better informed.
As a freshman at Transylvania University he visits the special collections library. He’s pretty disinterested until something captures his attention, John James Audubon’s book, Birds of America.
The resplendently illustrated flamingo is captivating, and he is instantly attracted to the precious book worth over 10 million dollars.
He mentions this visit to his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). Lipka is everything that Reinhard isn’t, a wild child, full of devilment. Together they hatch an audacious plan, to steal some of the books stowed in this special collections library.
Fact is often stranger than fiction and Layton has delivered a truly authentic and faithful representation of the story, with no embellishment.
We know this because the film is unconventionally shot, in part documentary, and in part narrative.
Having our four subjects talking on camera offers the audience a much more connected, invested experience.
This also offers a deeper complexity to the story; that of their contrasting tales, as each person has their own recollection of the events. Layton doesn’t hide from this, and actually capitalizes on their discrepancies to enhance the storytelling.
Layton also cleverly draws reference to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, so expect all the thrills of a slick heist flick!
For this he purposely steered away from the conventional, pretty boy marquee names and opted for, perhaps lesser known actors to capture the essence, nuance and frailties of the group. Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner not only deliver on this, but also on their execution of the ever evolving dynamic within their relationship.
Six years in the making, Layton’s debut narrative feature is a scintillating, evocative account making him unmistakably the worthy custodian of this true story.
Want to watch priceless filmmaking? Then watch American Animals