Director: Bart Layton
15 | 1h 56min | Crime, Drama | 7 September 2018 (UK)
Ok, I admit, it fooled me. Going into director Bart Layton's heist thriller American Animals cold, the film's cheeky opening declaration 'not based on a true story' and a series of scene-setting, documentary-style interviews with a roster of 'real life' talking heads who smell like actors hamming it up, had me thinking that this was a fake story masquerading satirically as a true one. In fact, leaving the screening and perusing Wikipedia, I discovered the opposite is true; this is a true story about a astonishingly inept robbery committed by four bored middle class American students in 2003 that is mischievously told as if it is a send-up of the 'based on a true story' dramas regularly stinking up cinema screens. Given Layton is the British director who made the 2012 documentary The Imposter, I should've been better prepared.
I found myself wondering for some time if Layton's slippery, docufiction-ish approach (those are the real heist participants in the interview sequences, for one thing) to the material really added anything to what would be, on its own, still a raucously enjoyable, loopy dash through a stupendously bungled, staggeringly lazy crime job. I've since decided Layton just about justifies it, in part because the blurring of reality and movie nods to the lack of ability to tell the difference that we learn motivated the real-life crime, and made the downfall inevitable. Layton also uses the multiple talking heads, looking back on 14 years past, to slap us upside the head on the odd occasion in case we were getting too carried away rooting for the bad guys (as many heist movies inevitably encourage), by bringing in the real life victims of the crime to comment on their experiences. Sometimes the interviewees flat out contradict each other too, provoking 'do-overs' in the playing out of the 2003 sequences and leaving us to figure out who to root for. This can seem a bit of a trendy approach, but the eclectic deployment of it throughout means you always have something additional to chew on beyond simply watching the mechanics of a heist come together.
Why would four relatively 'ok' twenty-somethings grinding their way through college in 2000-era suburban Kentucky - Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Erik (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner) - want to give up their comfy, middle-class suburban existence and cook up a heist in Warren's garage to rob the local college’s very rare first edition art books? Peer pressure? Privilege? Toxic masculinity? We get some ideas about the ringleaders at least in the build up to the break-in. Spencer is an art student who mopes around, droning on that he feels his life has no-meaning, that he needs something exciting, even if tragic, to happen in his life to inspire greater artistry. Warren meanwhile is a student on an athletic scholarship, but one look at his face at the family dinner table is enough to tell that he is only doing this to get his dad off his back. He delights in fucking things up, including one ballsy drop-the-mic confrontation with his exasperated college dean which concludes with the young man driving his scholarship place off the literal cliff. Downtown Lexington too doesn't look like the most exciting place to 'do art' from Spencer's perspective; he no doubt thought making great art meant a Lower East Side New York loft apartment with plenty of booze and women on tap at all hours. What unites all these men appears to be a massive degree of self-destructive self-involvement, a belief that being an American man means, even demands, instant exceptionality. "It used to be that being a bum was the worse thing you can be', Spencer worries, 'but there is nothing worse now than just being average'.
Keoghan's and Peters's committed performances in their appealingly chalk vs cheese pairing, combined with the scrapes we see their characters get up to later on, suggests we should consider that maybe being bored and unfulfilled in this kind of actually quite comfortable middle class life might not be a heroic or sympathetic stance, its actually pretty narcissistic. Spencer seems to spend more time being frustrated than trying to do anything productive about it. Warren is a guy shown to be constantly sabotaged by his impulsiveness and arrogance. Add these traits to the fact that these American males seem to have reached a midlife crisis too early, before it could be tamed by the wisdom of the actual lived years, and you have a recipe for the chaos that follows.
Regardless of how slippery and half-formed the ultimate motivations of the quartet might seem by the end of the first act (the two additional members don't get as much screen time), Layton does at least ensure that the meat of the film - the planning and the execution of the heist- is packed with batty and tense incidents, all dusted with appropriate coatings of stupidity and hubris. Warren, according to his own (and possibly fake) account, actually went to Amsterdam to arrange a sit down with underworld art fences, an event that plays out hilariously on screen with a scenery-chewing cameo from Udo Kier. The gang build their plan in large part on their playlists of greatest heist movies (did they not watch these films to the end?) which tells you all you need to know about where their ideas of idealised American insta-success, and the kinds of thrilling life experiences they feel 20-years olds are entitled to, are coming from.
Layton runs further with the movie magpie approach and tricks us out by throwing us mid-film into a hyper-stylised raid on the college books, with Warren and Spencer moving in hilariously OTT finger-snapping style to a jaunty Jazz score worthy of Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, only to pull back and reveal its just Spencers' movie-tinged visualisation of it. We get plenty of fourth wall-messing moments too; at one point, Warren and the actor playing him share a conversation in the front seat of a car. The film is, for the most part, fast on its feet and impatient-feeling in its structure and editing, just like the in-over-their-heads plotters.
Yet Layton also judges well when it is right to pull it all back to let reality more firmly re-intrude. Two later raids; one a dry run (with the gang kitted out in ludicrous fake beards and clothing from Target's senior range, one of the many nicely weird beats) and the next one being the real thing, see Layton dialling back the elevated style elements notch by notch, until we are literally seeing the middle aged female librarian- the one human obstacle the gang could not avoid - piss her pants in real time whilst tied up on the floor. A haunting close-up keeps re-appearing in the narrative at certain points too; a sketch of a large, red bird which dominates the illustrations in John James Audubon’s volume Birds of America, those doll-like eyes starting out as if in reproach at all these stupid young American males unable to settle for just being good enough.