Bart Layton’s American Animals wraps a fascinating story around an equally fascinating hook, and proffers little reason to justify their marriage. The film chronicles an art heist planned, carried out and spectacularly bungled by a quartet of bored white college boys living in Kentucky around 2004, and Layton covers the narrative with a two-pronged approach: Straight ahead dramatization and talking head documentation, the two occasionally bleeding into each other through the frame. It’s a novel, though scarcely new, aesthetic—theoretically it suits the material handsomely, but in practice, it’s an ill fit.
American Animals is a movie about people who watch too many movies, made by an author who likely also watches too many movies. Layton’s work takes a palpable liking to his subjects not simply for their personalities but for a shared love of cinema. We’re invited to compare his plot to every other film that bears even slight family resemblance to his own, and once you compare a first timer’s output to Martin Scorsese’s, you run into trouble. (Forget Goodfellas: Layton takes cues from Scorsese flicks as recent as The Wolf of Wall Street.) But American Animals’ closest ancestors are found among the films of Richard Linklater and Robert Greene, specifically the former’s Bernie and the latter’s Kate Plays Christine.
Both movies blur lines dividing reality and fantasy by asking the real life people close to the real stories on which they’re centered to litigate them. Like Bernie, and like Kate Plays Christine, American Animals is affixed truth, being the crimes of Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), childhood chums who, while attending Transylvania University, get it in their heads to snatch a couple priceless Audubon books from the school’s library. Also like Linklater and Greene, Layton gives camera time to his actors as well as the people they’re playing, extending from Reinhard and Lipka to their accomplices, Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), as well as the school’s librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd).
Unlike Bernie and Kate Plays Christine, American Animals never balances authenticity and artifice. Mostly, we interact with Lipka, Reinhard, Borsuk, Allen and Gooch through interview segments detached from the reenactment scenes that comprise the bulk of its duration. On rare occasion, the original players actually participate in those scenes, as in an early sequence where Layton attempts to establish where Lipka and Reinhard came up with the idea to rob the library in the first place. Their accounts differ. Lipka recalls the conversation taking place at a party. Reinhard remembers it taking place in the car. (Both of them agree that wherever they were, they were cold.)
The camera cuts from party to car as Peters-Lipka and Keoghan-Reinhard pull into a gas station. Keoghan-Reinhard gets out of the car. The camera swivels to track his movement, then returns its gaze to the car, where Peters-Lipka has been joined by the real Lipka, watching from the passenger seat. “So this is how you remember it?” Peters asks Lipka. “Not exactly,” Lipka replies, “but if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let’s go with it.” And go with it Layton does. It’s the closest the film gets to being what it appears to want to be, a complex interrogation of truth’s role in a web of reminiscence, misrecollection and possible falsehood. The moment lets us observe Lipka observing his wrongdoing from the outside, putting him in a movie that reconstructs a time when he so desperately wanted his life to be like a movie.
It’s a great beat, but far too brief, and Layton never bothers using the device again, posing the question of why he bothered using it in the first place. The dialogue between star and subject adds wrinkles to American Animals where the rest of its content remains neatly pressed, easily understood, not absent of insight but deprived of creative presentation. In his one-on-one interviews with Lipka, Reinhard, Borsuk and Allen, he asks them to mull over their culpability. In his restaging of the night Lipka and Reinhard conceived the heist, he asks Lipka to actually confront his culpability head-on, which feels much more meaningful, and valuable, than paying him a visit more than a decade after the fact for the sake of rehashing the past. Nothing is gained from the film’s format.
Layton’s failure is frustrating. American Animals is a rare thing, truth that’s legitimately stranger than fiction. Bereft of a cohesive structure, the movie loses purpose, and that rare, strange truth is lost in workaday heist tropes blended with workaday documentary portraiture. “To have this, this need to know what is on the other side of that line,” Reinhard tells the camera toward the end, “and realizing the only way to actually do that is to cross it, there’s never a point in your life after that where you haven’t already crossed that line.” It’s another prime instance of American Animals’ potential for deconstructing human guilt, and another example of how the film squanders that potential.
Director: Bart Layton
Writer: Bart Layton
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, Ann Dowd
Release Date: June 1, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.