Film Review: American Animals

Genre-Bending Crime Thriller Incorporates Documentary Techniques In Its True(?)-Life Narrative

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
American Animals
It’s not truly a “heist” until disguises are involved. (Courtesy of The Orchard)
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Tabloid reality collides with Hollywood mythmaking in British documentary filmmaker Bart Layton’s first scripted drama, the oddly academic and thoroughly absorbing crime thriller American Animals. Layton’s last outing as writer-director was the mesmerizing, twist-filled 2012 documentary The Imposter. It’s no suprise, then, to see him employing similar techniques in this funny, serious, thoughtful, suspenseful genre bender.

American Animals immediately blurs the line between reality and fiction claiming that, “The following is not based on a true story,” before hedging its bet and eliminating the words “not based on.” It then races into its narrative, intercutting interview footage of the real-life people behind the story with scripted scenes of the actors portraying them. To put your mind at ease: The story is based in reality. It concerns an actual crime that took place in Kentucky back in 2004. It involved a quartet of smart-but-dumb college kids, starting and ending with wild-eyed ringleader Warren Lipka (Evan Peters from “American Horror Story”) and disaffected art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan from Dunkirk).

Flippant, pot-smoking Warren is attending college on an athletic scholarship and has no idea what he wants to do in life. His buttoned-up pal Spencer, meanwhile, spends his days wondering if he’s had enough suffering in his life to be a great artist. While touring the special collections library at Transylvania University, Spencer lays his eyes on a first-edition copies of John James Audubon’s
Birds of America. He’s entranced by the artistic beauty. But he’s also distracted by the fact that it’s worth upwards of $12 million.

Somehow, Spencer and Warren get it in their heads that they should steal the book. Warren sets it up as a
Fight Club-esque test of their manhood. Spencer reluctantly agrees—even though it was his idea to begin with. To psych themselves up (and to get a few tips) the two watch every heist film they can rent at Blockbuster. They also smoke a lot of weed and dream about their future. Warren dismisses his friend’s pessimistic attitude, saying they could end up on a yacht in the Caribbean, just like at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. Spencer points out that the characters in The Shawshank Redemption spent 20 years in jail to get there.

With a wink in its eye, the film allows the real people to explain the story as it’s happening on screen. The real-life, current-day Warren and Spencer (yes, that is them) pop in to provide narration to the action. “We were never serious about it,” insists Spencer in his on-screen interview. “I was serious from the beginning,” says Warren in his. Eventually, the real people start intruding on the film itself, arguing over whether a scene happened “that way” or not. Actual Warren and authentic Spencer fight over details of how a certain person looked, and the film scrambles to correct itself, recasting a background actor on the fly. “Who knows if this is how it really went,” one of the boys eventually admits, driving home the film’s sharply meta struggle of expectation-vs.-reality.

On the “fictional” side, Peters and Keoghan display a fine-tuned chemistry. Their friendship—a typical instigator/follower dynamic—is easy to understand. And their enthusiastic (if clearly doomed) embrace of this elaborate heist is infectious. As the plans start coming together, Warren and Spencer imagine their impending crime as a stylish,
Reservoir Dogs-esque fantasia, complete with Elvis soundtrack. (“Didn’t they all die at the end of that movie?” someone later points out.) American Animals stops short of the comic escapism of, say, Bottle Rocket. But it’s still distinctly amused by the proceedings. Until it’s not.

Eventually, realizing they don’t know what they’re doing, Warren and Spencer draft some additional help in the form of loner accounting student/strategic planner Eric Boursic (Jared Abrahamson) and goal-oriented “entrepreneur”/getaway driver Chas Allen (Blake Jenner). They also somehow dig up a creepy fence (the reliably creepy Udo Kier) to sell off their ill-gotten gains (unless that guy was totally made up—which nobody can agree on). Needless to say, despite what they’ve fervently convinced themselves of, there’s no yacht in the Caribbean waiting for these characters at the end of this movie.

With its mix of nonfictional interview segments and dramatic recreations,
American Animals has the look and feel of all those traditional television docudramas pedaled on a weekly basis by the likes of A&E and Investigation Discovery. But Layton’s a savvy operator. He subverts those docudrama trappings, adding some incredibly thoughtful camera work and a River’s Edge-like undercurrent of middle-American ennui to it all. The result is a rabidly entertaining look at how the clichés of Hollywood movies have influenced all of us—those on the screen as well as those in the audience.
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