American Animals, the latest movie from Bart Layton, revolves around an attempted art heist, carried out by four college students as they attempt to steal and sell priceless pieces of literature. While the majority of the film is given over to reconstruction, it’s shot through with stark interviews with the real people involved in the heist, from the men who ran the operation to the librarian they were forced to violently subdue as a part of their robbery.
And straight up, this is just a well-crafted movie. Interweaving real-life interviews with the people involved in the heist with reconstructions, the performances crackle with explosive, adolescent energy: Barry Keoghan (fresh off a stunning and deeply underrated performance in The Killing of a Sacred Deer last year) finds depth in the stillness of Reinhard, while Evan Peters (playing yet another one of his impossibly charismatic, follow-him-into-hell cult leaders) is impossibly watchable as Warren Lipka. Blake Jenner (and I can’t believe I’m saying this, having watched his start on the interminable The Glee Project) and Jared Abrahamson deliver similarly textured performances, with all four fleshed-out with help from their real-life counterparts. The direction veers between sharp focused and stoned-out haze, and the script lends a chemistry to the leading quartet that imbues the film with a familiarity for anyone who has kicked around their hometown willing something better to come along.
Aside from the performances, the way the film plays with perception is truly innovative in ways that I’ve never seen the true crime genre delve into before; the real-life men involved in the heist occasionally interact with their on-screen counterparts, and the various perceptions and hazy memories overlap to create scattered, questionable narratives about the truth of what happened. The film blends docu and drama in a way I’ve never seen before, so the lines between the two end up in this imperceptible mess that forces you to second-guess nearly everything – something Layton explored in The Impostor, his excellent 2012 debut. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, not with tension, but with questions: how much of this is real? How much of it can be?
But the most interesting thing the film delves into is the sense of the extraordinary. Perhaps the most telling line in the film comes from the real-life Spencer Reinhard, wherein he makes an offhand comment about his ambitions as an artist- that nobody wants to hear from a kid with a great life who just happens to draw well. And that’s the lifeblood of American Animals, more than anything. In order to be worthy, in order to find purpose, these boys have to do something catastrophic to give their lives meaning.
Their lives, without a driving central action that defines them, are listless. But to gain that extraordinariness, they have to hurt people: while the violence against the librarian could almost be played for laughs in a regular heist flick, here the impact on in weighs heavy on the characters and the real-life men behind them. They have gained notoriety and purpose with the planning and execution of their scheme, but it’s come at the cost of allowing themselves to perceive their own decency. And, well, the real-life Spencer Reinhard is now a successful artist, mostly creating images similair to those found in the books he tried to steal. So perhaps the heist was the impetus he needed to achieve his artistic success, after all.
Altogether, American Animals feels like a fresh take on a genre that seemed exhausted: with true crime a hot ticket right now, finding a new approach often seems impossible, but Bart Layton carefully meshes reality and fiction into a hypnotic mythology that neatly sidesteps simple hagiography. Bold, post-modern, and insightful, American Animals has set a new standard for what the true crime genre can achieve – and I can only hope that many more follow suit.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image courtesy of Slash Film)