Synopsis – Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history.
My Take – Everyone like a good heist film right? Here, in his dramatic debut director Bart Layton, known for helming 2012’s The Imposter, one of the more engrossing documentaries in recent years, has spliced together narrative storytelling with documentary-style interviews, for an unusual heist film, that is something much stranger, wiser, and more lasting. Yes, this one is not the first film to add in documentary interviews to a narrative film, but it is so uniquely constructed and done in such a strong manner, all while adding depth to the characters within the narrative section of the film, that is at times a breezy low-stakes heist flick and at times something darker. While the film’s style of pseudo-documentary mixed with fiction was not exactly the most smoothly-executed, it eventually comes back into play as the teaching tool of the entire film.
The film’s points it chooses to make, both light and dark, are powerful through this very medium. Its pacing and choices of editing, specifically a change by the second half that evolves the entire film into something completely different, were what flipped the proverbial coin for me as an audience member. Led by a cleverly woven script with impeccable, and precise direction by Layton, you are taken on an improbable journey of this true event, which consists of characters that the audience will find despicable but also relatable and understand why this group of people committed the crimes that they did.
It could have gone off the rails in so many areas, but it remains tight with confident direction from Layton, by allowing the film to go off the rails in all the correct ways as this story gets more pulsating and wacky by the minute. The film does this by setting itself up like a heist film until the heist happens and seemingly everything that could go wrong does go wrong. The film is perfectly executed and brings up some interesting topics to create a thrilling and engaging heist film packed with beautiful cinematography and superb performances.
Based on a true 2004 event, the story follows Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an upcoming artist and student at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, who seeks out something extraordinary to experience the requisite pain and suffering to make his life worth living. Bored out of his mind he struggles along on a guided tour of the university library, but as he enters the rare books room that houses unique volumes, his interest is awakened by glancing at a huge book locked in a glass case, John James Audubon’s gorgeous The Birds of America, that is worth millions. Later in the day, he mentions about his discovery to Warren (Evan Peters), a charismatic, somewhat wild friend his parents aren’t crazy about, who becomes intrigued by the idea of the book, how lightly it is guarded and most of all, its value.
Suddenly he and Warren are planning a fancy-book liberation, a piece of playacting that somehow keeps getting more and more real, as they have to find a way to fence the books in order to profit from the scheme. This leads to an ever-growing series of adventures to New York City and even Netherlands to meet the mysterious Mr. Van Der Hoek (Udo Kier). Eventually, the duo realize they need more help to pull off the robbery and enlist the brainy Eric (Jared Abrahamson), who dreams of working for the FBI and Chas (Blake Jenner), a rich athlete as their getaway driver. They have a heist film marathon and Google ‘how to plan a heist,’ and script out the perfect plan — complete with Reservoir Dogs code names, old man disguises, an Elvis montage, and a getaway van. Oh, and there’s also the requisite hapless victim, the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Down), whose humanity the young men try desperately to ignore. But hey, it’s a true story, remember? All does not go to plan, and the four boys have their life changing experience, one that will remain with them their entire lives.
While playing out the story the film cuts back and forth between interviews with the older and wiser perpetrators and their parents in order to give us more insight behind the robbery. But what’s most impressive about the film is the way director Layton brings the strangeness of this crime by focusing on the question: Why would four privileged, talented kids from good families in good neighborhoods, with good scholarships to good schools, try to pull out such a crazy art heist like this one? Probably it was the fear of mediocrity. Crucially, the four young men at the core of the story don’t need to commit the crime they set their hands to – they just want to, because their current quite comfortable lives don’t exactly jibe with the luxury and adventure to which they feel entitled.
That’s a pretty terrible reason for resolving to crime, but awful choices can certainly make for awfully compelling cinema, as director Layton does an amazing job intertwining the story leading up to and through the heist, with actual interviews with the now grown men who present all versions of their experience. What sets this film apart from other heist films is the true story element. It’s clear from moment one that this plan is absolutely not going to work, and all viewers should prepare to live in a near-constant state of secondhand embarrassment.
In reality they are just laughably inept crooks, who begin their campaign by Googling how to plan a heist, literally watch a stack of heist film DVDs for inspiration and proceed to pile misconception upon ignorance as events unfold, at one point making an abortive attempt to lift their prize disguised as old men. The tension comes not from wondering if things will go wrong, but when – in the context of the story we know these guys are doomed to failure, we just don’t know exactly how or how much collateral damage they’ll do in the process.
What makes this concept so captivating and so unique compared to other legendary heist films like ‘Ocean’s Series‘, ‘The Italian Job‘ and others is that this film revolves around both a certain sense of negativity and adolescence. We watch as these college kids, all aimless and without a clue, try to chase the American dream through the most devious way possible. This film is not about a heist. Rather, this film is about their negativity, and growing-up in just about the scariest way possible. The film itself grows-up as we go, as we open with a sense of style and editing that is snappy and fast-paced. The style of young adult; alive and frantic. Everything is bright lights and pop songs, all while our protagonists see themselves as ‘good guys’ as they plot a heroic heist of a library and its priceless books.
As audiences we too want to see this heist succeed, and we suddenly see it unfold, until the consequences hit, and the laughs becomes weaker and weaker until we as audiences reach a similar realization as the characters do; this is real life. Also, director Layton uses the real life figures involved in this heist to expand upon the actors playing them, to add character depth where their wouldn’t have been any otherwise. It’s such an effective use of time and space that adds plenty of color to each scene. Even better, the film plays hard into the idea of the unreliable narrator. The heist was such a wild experience for the real figures that they contradict at how things played out and each other time and time again, and director Layton embraces this aspect of their dynamic together and creates visual contradictions within the narrative that mirror what each individual thought happened.
Yes, the film has been criticized for trying to be too many things at once, but the blending of multiple themes and genres does work in this context. Sure, the tonal shifts aren’t always smooth, and there’s a certain amount of cynicism that creeps in from time to time, but this one is an audacious picture that succeeds very well. It dares making the audience feel uncomfortable. Much of the credit for that deeply uncomfortable state is due to the thoughtful writing and direction of Bart Layton. His approach is neither clinical nor sympathetic, yet there’s both empathy and a sense of objective detachment present at all times. It saves the testimony of the real Librarian Betty Jean Gooch until near the end, as a powerful coda to some of the lighter moments in the film.
When it comes to performance, there is no doubt that Evan Peters carries this film. Peters performance seems effortless and organic, really bringing the film together as a whole. While Barry Keoghan adds another impeccable performance to a quickly growing resume. The former masks his character’s melancholy with an exuberantly animated facade as the latter embraces his wealth of nuance to say more with expressions and demeanor than with words. Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson have the least to do, but make the most of their screen time. They each breathe life into the past self of men now cursed with hindsight and blessed with a second-chance. The always great Ann Dowd, who in her few scenes is efficient and conjures a performance that’s unsettling and diminishing. On the whole, ‘American Animals‘ is a smart, sleek, and enjoyable film that uses its innovative storytelling techniques and excellent performances to become one of the most confidently executed heist films ever made.
Directed – Bart Layton
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes