Bart Layton’s much anticipated follow-up to his brilliant 2012 film The Imposter is another true crime driven tale. Stepping into the realm of narrative filmmaking, Layton ensures his documentary roots are still proudly on display. Interjecting the real-life men at the core of the story throughout the film, American Animals never feels like traditional heist film despite adhering to many of the tropes of one.
Making the distinction in the opening that this is “not based on a true story,” but rather that “this is a true story”, the film frequent treads on Orson Welles’ F for Fake territory. Layton further blurs the line between reality and fiction by including the men’s conflicting accounts of key events. For men who rented heist films, such as Rififi, to learn the basics of planning a robbery, their recollection of the details is as messy as the overall executions of their crime was.
Set in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004, Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is an artist and student looking for that one thing that will define his future aspirations. In his mind, all great artists need to endure a level strife that will undoubtedly make their work special. After visiting a special collection section of the Transylvania University Library, Spencer and his insatiable pal Warren (Evan Peters) devise a plan to steal some of the rare texts in the collection, including John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species.”
Considering that a middle-age librarian (Ann Dowd) is the only one guarding the items, worth millions of dollars, in that section of the library, Spencer and Warren truly believe that they have crafted the perfect crime. All they need is two more individuals to fill out their crew, which is where and math genius Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and rich kid Chas (Blake Jenner) come into play.
Those familiar with the heist genre will know that things never go according to plan, and this film is no exception. Rather than revel in the mishaps, American Animal’s cold approach to the characters helps to show how misguided and self-serving the foursome really were. Despite coming from mostly stable families, their need to feel “special” came at the costly expense of others.
The cast, especially Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan, effectively bring out the arrogance and shortsightedness of. They ensure that the men maintain our interest even in their most unlikable moments. While the dramatic reenactments occasionally feel at odds with the talking head documentary segments, Layton succeeds in crafting a thoroughly entertaining tale of crime and misguided ego.