Mark Twain once said that the truth is stranger than fiction, and British director Bart Layton has taken great inspiration from those words in creation of his latest work, American Animals. This follows up on Layton’s breakthrough 2012 film, The Imposter, a quite fantastical story of misdirection and mistaken identities whose plot points were drip-fed to audiences on the edge of their seats. To say anymore on that film would ruin the surprise, so back to the present.
American Animals follows the same format as Layton’s previous film, in that we see talking heads recounting various viewpoints from the original events alongside a dramatised version of the actual events. That he has managed to get all the main players to agree to appear is no small feat.
The story here is the recounting of the theft of several rare books by 4 college students in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004, including John James Audubon’s The Birds of America most notably which lends the film its title. It’s not a story that many people would be able to recall, and this gives the film the basis for where it is successful. Indeed, while the story is involving and gripping on screen, it’s not that interesting or memorable on paper. The director has done considerable work to realise this within the film.
As lead, Evan Peters as Warren Lipkin is his usual scene stealing self and holds attention throughout particularly in the scenes where is contrasted with his older self and at some points together on screen. It is Barry Keoghan, a young Irish actor as Spencer Reinhard, that is the standout whose haunted expression provides a tangible sense of foreboding throughout.
As the film’s running time is divided between the enactments and the real people’s commentary, the film does feel slightly diluted as neither half feels substantial enough to survive with the supporting opposite half. Although, it must be said that its very impressive how authentic and seamless the actual portrayal of the people is.
As the story takes hold, Layton throws in a mix of tones which serves to distract from the bones of the story, as we see their planning influenced by heist films, with numerous nods through its 70s soundtrack (although the film follows 4 teenagers in the mid-2000s) to films in the heist genre contrasted against the boys’ family and college life. However, there never appears anything to suggest or support the willingness to become involved, the lack of any awareness of consequence is missing as is any reason to go through with it. Did they really think they would become millionaires and go on with their lives? Perhaps, but you imagine there was more sense behind this.
The main problem of the film is that the tale is missing a great twist, which you feel must be coming as surely, it can’t be so easy for the planning and preparation to take hold. A modern trope of any thriller appears to be an unreliable narrator, but the involvement of the original foursome quite often discussing events in plain, deadpan fashion doesn’t give much away on this front. The appearance of the foursome in the press for the robbery, as shown on the poster, ends up being a narrative red herring and much like most of the film, you feel like there must have been more to this.
It’s an enjoyable enough film told with great style and marks Layton as a major talent but, unlike the events contained herein and the expert witness style testimonies, don’t expect anything that you could recall on camera twenty years later.