Points always go to unique, original ideas and new approaches to specific genres. Bart Layton’s American Animals takes the docudrama and heavily blurs the lines between documentary and drama. He elevates the reenactment crime device by involving the actual primary figures to portray persons and events with a high level of accuracy.
“Unlike the calm, cool, sophistication of the Ocean’s Eleven crew, this crime is real…”
American Animals follows the lives of four college students: Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner). The four were caught and convicted of stealing and attempting to steal several rare books from the Transylvania University library, including a first edition Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and the main target Birds of America by John James Audubon.
Like most reenactment shows, the subjects talk about what they did and what was going on in their head, while a faceless actor acts it out in a dreamy haze. Here the actors take most of the lead while allowing the talking-head subjects to provide the necessary insight and details without bogging down the narrative.
The heist started with Spencer and Warren. Spencer is, for the most part, a well-adjusted art student. Bored with his level of art felt the renowned artists of the past had some trauma to propel them to the next level in their art. Warren was a student on an academic scholarship, obtained because of his alumni father, in a sport he didn’t love. Temperament-wise the two are Ying and Yang. Spencer is quiet and introspective, and Warren is hyperactive and impulsive.
“You feel the excitement of planning the heist, the anxiety of the moments leading to it…”
The first small seed of the crime came from Spencer just thinking out loud that the rare books were not well protected in the library and it would be easy to steal them. Warren takes the next step by pondering the old wouldn’t-it-be-fun scenario. A simple hypothetical conversation turned into internet research and studying classic heist movies. The conversation leads to Spencer casing the library and drawing blueprints and Warren surveilling the library employees for timetables and patterns. All culminating with Warren flying to the Netherlands to meet with a fence that would buy the stolen books.
It is here the duo realized they needed help. The two first approach accounting student Eric Borsuk, who studied accounting because the FBI hires accountants immediately after graduation. He had the needed skill set of troubleshooting and profiling and was quite frankly bored taking classes. Chas Allen was a self-made millionaire as a teen, and he had driving skills.
The fascinating insights of American Animals come from exploring just why these four college students decided to steal the books in the first place. None of the four, with the possible exception of Warren, has a background in crime or necessarily needed the million-dollar bounty. It was the slow rolling snowball that went out of control. They got carried away with the idea and excitement of the heist to the point of obsession.
“To a fault Hollywood is great at glamorizing crime, including the most heinous…”
The performances in American Animals are spot on. Layton’s narrative flows always maintaining an energetic flow of tension from moment-to-moment. The subject interviews are insightful and emotional. The family interviews show the hopeful potential the boys had in life followed by the biting disappointment of their actions.
Bart Layton is effective in his approach to combining the real subjects and events with Hollywood drama. Unlike the calm, cool, sophistication of the Ocean’s Eleven crew, this crime is real. You feel the excitement of planning the heist, the anxiety of the moments leading to it, the self-doubt and internal cries of “you’re crazy” during the heist and the incredible weight of guilt and heavy anxiety of the weeks leading to their final arrest.
To a fault Hollywood is great at glamorizing crime, including the most heinous. I don’t know if Layton set out to make a morality tale, but he did. American Animals is to crime what Reefer Madness should have been to the “dangers” of marijuana.
American Animals (2018) Written and directed by Bart Layton. Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner. American Animals is playing at the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival April 5 to 17.
4.5 out of 5 stars