A part-doc, part-heist thriller hybrid, American Animals has all of the hard hitting truth of the former and the heart pounding exhilaration of the later. An expressive and formally excellent ride through an absurd true story of youthful ignorance and desire.
Posing the object of desire in the true heist story behind American Animals, John James Audobon’s collection of naturalist illustrations ‘The Birds of America’ shares a far more parallel relationship with Bart Layton’s docufiction than may at first be apparent. Both exist in respective mediums which are defined (or at least partially defined) by their attempts to convey objective truth, yet observational painting and documentary present a paradox in the sense that to do so properly is impossible. Just as Audobon would have discovered deep into the nineteenth century when his work unavoidably displayed the awe of its artist, Layton’s American Animals is self-aware of its inability to completely discard the subjective. The result is a hyper-expressive, genre inspired observation of a moment of ridiculous reality which shakes up the documentary genre as much as it does its audience.
An American flamingo provides American Animals with its Maltese falcon. The centre piece of the Audobon collection haunts Spencer Reinhart (Barry Keoghan) and impulsive friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), two college students who haphazardly plan to steal Audobon’s ‘The Birds of America’ from the private collection of their university library. ‘We’re talking about $12 million in rare books, and one old lady guarding it’ sets the hook and Layton gleefully keeps us on his line. All the while we are dragged through a wealth of waters. Within its documentary framework, which features interviews with the real people behind this audacious true crime story, American Animals is a pounding heist movie that delivers on its influences.
Riding off the back of their own youthful ignorance, Lipka and Reinhart are equally inspired by their cinematic counterparts but deliver less so. Employing the help of fellow students Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) they assign themselves colour-based nicknames as a childlike homage to Reservoir Dogs after taking planning tips from a self-curated film festival of heist classics. Peters is better than he has ever been here and Keoghan channels the quirky awkwardness of his turn in last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer; their adolescent approach to the criminal world played as much as intelligent strategists in the vein of Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network as they are two children playing dress up. It is this charming immaturity which has us backing the outlandish scheme which is less Mission: Impossible and more Mission: Imbecile.
The idiocy never becomes an issue however. Layton ensures that the plan seems fathomable, at least for a while, before reality creeps back from behind the secured book shelves. It is here that the performance/documentary milkshake is at its most delicious. The flavours of the heightened fictional heist movie have all of the escapism and thrills that the genre boasts while its intercutting documentary sprinkles provide the grounded awakening to the debris of their actions.
Such a concoction wouldn’t have been so effectively realised without its master blenders, director Layton and editors Nick Fenton, Chris Gill and Julian Hart. Reality and performance are effortlessly plaited into a mosaic of truth and dramatization. Think the Frankenstein-esque lovechild of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and Clio Barnard’s The Arbor. It makes for cathartic viewing and even extends to question the fabric of memory itself in a brilliant moment involving the colour of a scarf, but this only serves the heist elements with greater stakes as the essence of deceit echoes through to the filmmaking itself.
Bart Layton’s sophomore piece is an expressive naturalist painting of a larger than life subject. Much like Audobon, his passion and enthusiasm for the sheer playfulness of his subject are evident in the force of his strokes. As a result, American Animals is a knuckle-whitening thrill which doesn’t forget to condemn its subjects as it attempts to understand them and their detached childish innocence; they prove themselves not so much American Animals, but Reservoir Puppies.
American Animals (2018), directed by Bart Layton, is distributed in the UK by The Orchard, certificate 15.