Bart Layton follows up his 2011 documentary The Imposter with American Animals, and this narrative film based on real-life events is as slippery as his previous feature
“This is not based on a true story,” American Animals boldly declares – that is, until “not based on” suddenly vanishes. Bart Layton, the documentarian arriving with his audacious feature debut, is not concerned with the wishy-washy theatrics of true crime dramas. He wants to tell it as it is, even if it means bending the rules to get there.
With only one librarian (Ann Dowd) standing in the way, educated idiots Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) hatch a plan to steal books worth millions of dollars – first as a joke, until it’s not. They google “how to plan a heist” and rent movies from Blockbuster for inspiration. The warning bells ringing in your head are justified, as the 2004 heist at Transylvania University was one of the most disastrous in recent memory.
From minute one, the film comes in steamrolling with madcap confidence and assured style. It flips the entire concept of the documentary on its head – instead of talking head interviews accompanied by tacky reenactments, it’s the inverse. Alongside the actors, the real perpetrators operate as commentators, foregoing the lazy crux of internal voiceover. Their interviews are as insightful as they are contradictory. It’s also reflected in the performance aspect of this two-sided coin – scenes bleed into each other, dialogue overlaps, identical conversations take place in two locations at once – the reliability of memory unravels before our eyes.
Facts don’t line up perfectly but that’s not the point. Investigating the why, not the how, proves to be an intricate puzzle of its own. The parents attest that they are “not criminals”; they’re “good kids”. It sounds vaguely familiar. The motive is fuzzy, but middle-class entitlement appears to play a role. When everything is handed to you on a silver platter, the only thing you want is more. If this is what Layton can pull from a bunch of knuckleheads, we can only imagine what he could do with a film about smarter people.
Released by STX International