I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie like writer-director Bart Layton’s American Animals. The film opens with the typical tagline of “This is based on a true story,” but soon “based” is crossed out and Layton announced “This is a true story.” In telling the true story of four college kids who attempted a daring heist of valuable old books pulls upon its real life inspirations to provide their side of events. However, in blurring the lines between drama and documentary, Layton kind of lets these real life criminals off the hook. For all of its stylistic flourishes, American Animals really doesn’t have much to say about anything as the film is much more taken at the idea of four young men going through extreme lengths to pull off what they believe to be the perfect crime.
Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan) are two old friends now college students from the suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky. Warren has a kind of manic personality, one that has the ability to focus on a certain thing and relentless obsess over it. Spencer is much more detached and quiet with aspirations of being an artist. When Warren discovers that the library at Spencer’s college is home to a number of rare and valuable books, he sets his mind to pulling off a robbery. Spencer isn’t quite as gung ho on the idea but financial pressures make it more appealing over time.
Eventually, Warren’s plot becomes so detailed that he realizes that Spencer and him can’t pull it off alone. They’re eventually able to recruit two more guys that they know, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner). Part of Warren’s plotting takes him to Europe, where he meets a couple of scoundrels that give him guidance on how to sell the books once they’ve been lifted. The other parts of Warren’s plotting come from the movies, going as far as to assign codenames straight out of Reservoir Dogs (which was lifted by The Taking of Pelham 123, by the way). Their initial plot was to don old age make up, seize the librarian (Ann Dowd), and make off with the books. Once that plan crumbles, they attempt the heist without the aid of makeup and the results are absolutely disastrous.
The outcome of the heist is never really in doubt, meaning so much of the ride that is American Animals hinges on its kinetic style and the sheer ineptness of its characters. If you detach yourself from the fact that these are a handful of fairly privileged white dudes terrorizing an older librarian, perhaps you can enjoy the moronic hijinks of these would-be masterminds. Too often, though, Bart Layton doesn’t want to tackle the more challenging aspects of its story. He wants us to wrapped up in the style of his filmmaking – which brimming with energy. But the energy is extremely hollow and often feels lifted from better movies.
Somewhere in the heart of all gangster and crime films is a critique of the American Dream, its limited availability and how easily the pursuit of that dream can be perverted. That’s almost an afterthought in American Animals as the film is much interested in needle drops that feel cool or non-linear editing that highlight just how stylistic its filmmaker really is. Don’t get me wrong, I really like stylized films but the problem with American Animals is that Bart Layton is too often enamored with his own style at the expense of having anything of value to say. It doesn’t help that the film is a retelling of the events from the four would-be criminal masterminds, meaning each voice is trying to downplay their guilt and maximize their motivations. Layton is happy to oblige.
American Animals is truly an unusual movie. In a way, I respect its daring audacity to create what is essentially a true docudrama. However, it’s so much style and very little substance. It’s inspired in its dedication to bucking conventional trends but it does such little beyond using its real life subjects as a means to tinker with form. The film says little or nothing about the youthful ennui that would lead a set of college kids into a world of crime. American Animals disappoints because it aims to be so much more than what it ultimately is – a true crime story.