Whenever a documentary filmmaker makes the transition to narrative features, there is some concern over whether they can handle the change. It’s one thing to tell us a story based on evidence and real moments caught on camera. It’s another to craft a world with drama, stakes, and tension that inherently brings falsehood through performance. Yet few directors will crossover in the way that Bart Layton brings “American Animals” to life. Layton entwines documentary and performance to create a true-crime heist film. The result is something that feels experimental while holding more heart and tension than your average heist film.
“American Animals” follows four young men destined to commit a heist. Friends Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) are bored in their lives. While each is successful, they are looking for something exciting in their lives. Warren spouts off movie quotes, and lines his house with films like “Thief,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Killing.” He resents his father’s choices, and fears becoming a nobody. Spencer has no feel for who he is or where he belongs. He is an artist that has no vision or future. That is, until he sees a flamingo dancing across a book.
The book, “Birds of America” by John James Audubon, features gorgeous paintings from one of the greatest wildlife artists in American history. It also happens to be worth at least $12 million. Soon, Warren and Spencer bring in friends Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) to steal the book, along with an Illuminated manuscript and an original “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin.
Each of the young men does an incredible job in their roles. Keoghan and Peters share lead duties throughout the film. If you squint, one might mistake their pairing as “Fight Club” if Norton and Pitt stole art. Keoghan is subtle, often looking for ways out of the plan, yet never taking them. Peters is Keoghan’s id, unfocused, and out of control. Peters plays Warren as if Red Bull courses through his veins. Together, they own this movie, each in their own subtle ways. They are extremely gifted young actors who turn in some of their most nuanced and passion driven work to date.
Jenner is one of the true standouts of the film. He is the most controlled in the group, and despite his skepticism, goes along with the plan. When he breaks, it is glorious. It is undeniably one of the best scenes in the film, and gives Jenner a chance to showcase his intensity. Ann Dowd also gives a strong performance in limited time. While the film treats her as a plot device at times, Dowd breathes life into the character. Her humanity in small moments forces the audience to confront their feelings regarding the film’s brutality.
Writer and director Bart Layton uses his background as a documentarian to spice up what should have been a run-of-the-mill heist film. The film begins with the phrase “This Film is Not Based on a True Story,” only to drop some words to read “This Film is a True Story.” From the get-go, Layton seems to refute this at every turn. One of the ways in which he can do this is by utilizing narration from the real-life versions of Lipka, Reinhard, Borsuk, and Allen. It’s a startling feel that makes the film experimental, and instantly raises the value of what’s on screen. The naivete of the boys on screen clashes violently with the sorrow and regret of these men.
What’s more, their narration is used to immediately make the narrators unreliable. The film is instantly fighting its claim that what we are about to watch is true. This makes you question each moment throughout the film, wondering if any of it is true at all. Layton’s storytelling is masterful, and among the most unique you will see all year.
The real finds here come from the below-the-line work. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s gorgeous work as DP should make everyone take notice. Birkeland’s framing and shot selection is some of the most gorgeous work of the year. Anne Nikitin’s score is powerful and vibrant. It draws inspiration from many great films and is utilized to its fullest potential to deliver tension. Finally, the editing team of Nick Fenton and Chris Gill expertly weaves between the narrative being told, and the documentary aspects. There are moments that feel as grand as the best heist films, while never feeling too rushed or too slow. It’s amazing work, and knows how to make the audience rise and fall on command. You will feel emotionally spent in this film in ways only the best heist films can.
There’s inevitably going to be a conversation about “American Animals” that every critic will have. Privilege is at the center of this film. Some may read the story as the tale of four young white men, who committed a heinous crime and are now valorized through the film. It’s a fair argument to be had. Yet Layton pours regret into each frame, performance, and moment. In many ways, “American Animals” is not unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “Wall Street” before it. This is a story about those who do selfish things to make their lives extraordinary. They are the worst moments in all of us, brought to life through unfiltered id. In many ways, this is the quintessential American story of men who fear repercussions for their actions.
“American Animals” will not be for everyone. Yet for some, it will quickly become a classic. The film is gorgeously pieced together, through storytelling, performance, and beautiful music. It is among the most surprising movies of 2018, which is quickly filling up with those kinds of films. Due to the inventive work from Layton, what you experience will be incredibly unique. What you take away from “American Animals” is what may truly shock you.