Bart Layton’s “American Animals” is like a strange love child of “The Town” and “The 15:17 to Paris,” it could also be narrowed down as a rip-off of recent film endeavors like “I, Tonya.” The film opens with a title card that reads “This is Not Based on a True Story,” and then the “not based” segment of the sentence fades out of the screen leaving the title “This is a True Story.” Which makes you presume there will be a documentary sequence near the end-credits that reveals the reality of the film, instead, Layton splices interviews of the real men and women throughout the film. Continually derailing any momentum that had been built up before that interjection of legitimacy. I can see why a career documentarian filmmaker was assigned to direct this movie.
Revolving around the fascinating events of the 2004 Transylvania Library robbery in which four college students banded together to steal a group of rare and expensive books, “American Animals” recounts their lives that built up to those moments, intercutting the stories behind the scenes from the boys turned men that we’re apart of this adventure. It’s a bit of bored white privilege being used as a motivation to do something special, as if the opportunity of college, job success, and a comfortable life aren’t sustaining enough for their happiness.
It’s a bit hard to sympathize with these characters when you begin to consider that notion, as the film rolls on, the methodologies grow deeper. Itching vicariously at that idea of how we all so desperately desire to make our lives memorable, feeling that we waft through life as nothing short of mediocrity. Something examined far superiorly in “Sorry to Bother You,” but “America Animals” provides that dose of authenticity to make this film feel vigorously intense.
The first hour of the runtime weighs itself down with that inter-splicing though, like your riding a roller coaster that is going straight waiting for something to happen. We meet Warren Lipka and his charismatic personality and Spencer Reinhard’s regret of the events, knowing there were more than a few opportunities for him to walk away. That emotional examination of their lives became heavy and warranted in the latter half of the runtime, but the first half feels like it's stuck.
Revealing itself as a marriage of documentation and genre filmmaking, it takes a while for your expectations to adjust to the film your receiving instead of the artistically thrilling heist film you were anticipating. With one of the best trailers of the year that reminded me of an Edgar Wright production, “American Animals” never introduces itself with confidence, which is why that style comes to a surprise I think as if the filmmakers weren't confident that audiences would respond appropriately. They were right. The audience in my theater was filled with an atmosphere of excitement that was soon vacuumed out of the theater. We were duped.
Once you sink in and accept the bill of goods you’ve been sold, you begin to study the intricacies behind Layton’s methods. It pays off when the third act occurs, when the actual robbery takes place. The tension is sky-high, the fumbling and unprofessionalism of our robbers are sensical, believable, and authentic. Seeing that visualization of fiction reflecting reality saves “American Animals” from becoming a bad movie, pushing it towards something that is more middle of the road, which is far better than failure I guess.
The technicality saves it as well. Ole Bratt Birkeland provides a dour and grim look to the film that is continually pressing and closing in on these characters, oops, I meant real-life men. It’s as if the closer we get to these men; the more and more intimate the camera becomes, closing in on the actors, pushing towards them, even revealing them in their most private moments like bathing. The editing and music from Anne Nitkin work in perfect tandem, mimicking an Edgar Wright style of filmmaking that attempts to reproduce the sharpness and vigorousness that made Edgar famous.
When given the green light, our cast steals the show. Evan Peters is relentlessly charismatic and provocative, and Barry Keoghan continues to feed on that brilliant subtilty that we’ve seen him excel with in previous films. Blake Jenner delivers that Luke Perry charm, smiling and confidently striding throughout the film. Jared Abrahamson fades into the foreground in some respects but maintains a substantial presence.
These are the best aspects of the film that are outweighed and outshouted by the documentary traits of “American Animals.” It’s an experiment of a movie that wasn’t exactly worth it, I think. It’s a film worthy of study because it's derailing our expectations while simultaneously providing an authentic depiction of a heist that is merely invigorating to watch. It falls in the middle of the road for me; I find things that make me love the film and others that make me hate it, I don’t know which side is right.
I do know that ignoring the victim of the crime, Betty Jean Gooch, isn't right. She was assaulted during these events, yet it's used more as a sympathizer for these men than a moment of vilifying. If she weren't given a slice of time to denounce their actions, this film would be receiving a much lower grade.
Nonetheless, “American Animals” is about “good kids from good families” that find themselves grasping for the forbidden fruit, fruit that poisoned them almost entirely. Though they're, admittedly given a Hollywood idolization for artistic purposes, there's something worth watching here.
They now reside with regular jobs, college responsibilities, and the stress of life itself, who knows, maybe a new adventure is on the horizon for these four adrenaline junkies.