American Animals is a wild, rollicking story that makes us question how authenticity can be integrated into narrative filmmaking.
Audiences are becoming disillusioned with the truth. Whether it’s due to the constant influx of media or the fact that most features take “artistic liberties” with history, there’s a belief that most historical movies—despite “based on a true story” claims—are inherently disingenuous. This is why director Bart Layton’s American Animals feels so refreshing. His blending of documentary subjects with narrative filmmaking brings up questions of authenticity. Who does an audience choose to believe when perspectives are varied? Can a movie ever really show the truth when the real players’ memories are skewed? Cerebral questions aside, American Animals is a raucous crime drama whose small-town heist story sounds too good to be true: Four young men living in Kentucky decide to inject some excitement into their lives by robbing a school university of its rare book collection.
A quote by Charles Darwin discussing how “American animals” often retreat into the caves of Kentucky is apropos for a movie that combines the hillbilly heist-esque drama that Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky aimed for with a narrative examining the heights of male exceptionalism. The whole ridiculous affair seems blatantly fictional, except that four men actually planned and executed the portrayed heist—though it’s unclear who initially came up with the scheme: the upright Spencer (Barry Keoghan) or screw-up Warren (Evan Peters).
Layton, who made his directorial debut with the astounding documentary The Imposter, brings his documentarian past into this feature by inputting interviews with the real men at the center of this robbery into the narrative itself. At one point Peters’ Warren will say something only to be immediately contradicted by the real-life Spencer. The only thing everyone can agree on is the heist itself, and much of the fun of the movie—at the point where it is fun—is in hearing each person deny another’s version of events. Even something as innocuous as the specific color of a scarf is contextualized differently by each character. Layton wants us to question perspective, especially in cinema.
What could easily frustrate an audience is the group’s sense of entitlement. None of the men are hurting for money, nor are they living in poverty. In fact, Spencer says he can’t truly be an artist because he hasn’t suffered enough. Layton’s script, and the men’s own thoughts, imply that they were driven to commit the crime to inject excitement into their lives. By watching movies about heists, they hoped to have fun and avoid reality. The real Spencer often says he was hoping something would prevent them from pulling off the job. Coming to a decision himself was never an option. As the plan inevitably goes awry, there’s a bit of divine retribution to the whole thing—a sign they’d been hoping for but couldn’t foresee.
The story entertains both through the real-life interviews and the filmed reenactments. De facto ringleader Warren is the “spice to the broth” for the film, providing a compelling catalyst that’s enhanced by Peters’ hilarious and dominating performance. It helps that the real Warren Lipka is equally sharp, a smartass willing to call one of the men “Mr. Pink” purely to irritate him. Peters shows us a man barely hanging on in the wake of his parents’ divorce and amid his own ennui about his life. He sees the heist as a movie, detailed in a balletic fantasy sequence tuned to Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation.” Whether you believe he’s the ringleader or not, whether he was an actual thief or a great liar, Warren is the character that’s easy to love.
The rest of the cast is equally exceptional and create the necessary sparks to light a fire once the heist goes wrong. Keoghan is the calm, quiet presence as Spencer. He wants to “suffer” for his art, but his motivations always seem the most unclear, maybe because they sound so ridiculous. You’re left questioning whether this is a man just pulled along by his more charismatic friend, or secretly the one moving all the pieces from the corner. Jared Abrahamson as the scared Eric is equally fascinating because the real Eric once dreamed of being an FBI agent. And Blake Jenner brings a violent temper as Chas, a man who’s a little too content to pull a gun on others, whether or not the situation calls for it. All four of the them are meant to be seen as boys acting like men, just a group of entitled snobs thinking they deserve the world.
Layton’s film flows beautifully. Everything, from the planning of the heist to its execution and aftermath has a natural grace to it. Yet Layton also finds the fun at its core, particularly when the heist bottoms out. American Animals is a wild, rollicking story that makes us question how authenticity can be integrated into narrative filmmaking.