Documentary and drama combine in dazzling fashion in this endlessly fascinating exploration of a real-life heist.
For most people, a pile of DVDs provides a good night's viewing. For Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) in American Animals, it's a how-to guide. Hiring out The Usual Suspects, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job and more back in 2003, the pair aren't just indulging their love of heist films — they're planning their very own robbery. Alongside Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), the Kentucky college students set their sights on the Transylvania University library's rare collection, where specific volumes kept behind lock and key are worth millions. And while watching The Sting and giving each other codenames straight out of Reservoir Dogs mightn't seem like the smartest way to prepare, it illustrates the group's entire handling of their pilfering operation.
Motivated by the thrill of disrupting their daily routine, the lure of easy money and the yearning to feel as though they're not simply average, Spencer and his fellow middle-class pals treat their caper like it's a movie. If they realise that the likes of Butch Cassidy and Point Break don't end well for the thieves, they're choosing to ignore it. Astonishingly, theirs is a true story. That said, it proves even more astonishing in Bart Layton's hands. Drawn to another strange slice of reality after 2012's similarly twisty and thrilling The Imposter, the writer-director literally turns the quartet's hijinks into the kind of slick Hollywood flick that they'd love to watch. Incorporating interviews with the actual men behind the larceny as well, Layton also crafts a spectacularly playful and entertaining film that blurs the line between documentary and drama.
When Spencer discovers the treasure trove of books sitting within his college library, stealing them just seems so straightforward. Or at least it does to Warren. While art student Spencer is apprehensive, the more outgoing and carefree Warren latches onto the idea like there's no other alternative. And from that moment on, there isn't. Soon the two friends are sketching blueprints, flying to Amsterdam to meet with art dealers, rustling up disguises, and recruiting the apprehensive Eric and Chas. But then the big day arrives, they come face-to-face with the kindly archivist (Ann Dowd) charged with keeping the valuable texts safe, and the group's brush with crime is hardly the glossy heist that they've imagined.
If only American Animals could've sat in Spencer and Warren's to-watch pile, showing them what lay ahead. It doesn't, of course, although the notion isn't that far removed from Layton's perceptive and inventive approach. In a supremely clever blend of fact, fiction, fantasy and memory — and a superb display of editing as well — the filmmaker inserts the real-life perpetrators into the proceedings. Along with their parents and teachers, they relay their version of events to the camera, often conflicting with each other. Layton rewinds his recreations in response, unfurling new takes and changing details. More than that, he lets the actual Spencer and Warren step into the drama and interact with their counterparts, stopping the actors playing them when questions arise about what exactly happened, and how, and why.
There are heist movies, and then there are heist movies. Despite the many examples viewed by American Animals' protagonists, there's never been one quite like this. It's the product of a filmmaker who's determined to probe and ponder in a savvy and dazzling manner — and it's not only his thoroughly relevant and timely queries that grab attention, but the way he's doing the asking. In an endlessly fascinating film that wonders why four young men from comfortable backgrounds would risk their futures just to prove that they're special, and what that says about society as a whole, Layton lets his stylistic choices offer some of the answers. It's not by accident that American Animals begins with talking heads and naturalistic hues, then becomes fast and sleek when Spencer and company start chasing their fantasy, only to opt for grit and grimness when reality strikes.
Serving up resounding proof that The Imposter wasn't a one-off, Layton is at the top of his game — but he also has help. Or, perhaps his nose for a stunning story and his astute ability to spin it in exactly the right way are matched by his knack for casting. Acting opposite the real figures, Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past) couldn't better convey Spencer and Warren's essence. When the actual Warren proudly shows off his comic tattoo of a tyrannosaurus rex trying to switch off a ceiling fan, Peters instantly matches his wild yet assured vibe. When Spencer shows himself to be a ball of quiet nerves, Keoghan lets the feeling seep out of his pores. Still, the greatest trick that American Animals pulls is turning truth into a yarn and vice-versa, all while demonstrating how flimsy the boundary between the two truly is.