Bart Layton’s latest feature is a fusion of cinematic fantasy and reality
Bart Layton’s latest feature, American Animals, is the dramatisation of an ambitious but fiercely incompetent heist planned by four college boys at Transylvania University in Kentucky. Layton, who made a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker (most notably The Imposter, 2012) interweaves documentary and fiction once again, exploring what emerges as his trademark narrative style. Despite an unpromising trailer that advertised a cliched heist film, I found the film surprisingly enjoyable. American Animals distinguishes itself from quintessential heist movies by weaving interviews with the real-life culprits and their families throughout the narrative, providing some of the film’s most humorous and poignant moments.
The film begins with the characters preparing their disguises on the day of the robbery and then cuts to interviews with the real perpetrators, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard. Interviews with their families and former teachers throughout the film superimpose a critical angle on the rash actions of the two boys.
Perhaps bored or desperate to escape their own realities, Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan) devise a plan to steal $12 million worth of rare books from their university, guarded by librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd). They later recruit two more students to assist them, Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), a young rich entrepreneur as their driver, and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) an FBI wannabe who specialises in the logistics of the operation.
The first half of the film shows the boys planning what promises to be a cool Ocean’s 11-type adventure. Warren is caught up in the cinematic elements of a robbery, longing to escape the reality of his suburban nightmare of bickering parents and football scholarships. He and Spencer draw inspiration from their boyish cinephilia, calling themselves Mr Yellow, Green, Pink or Black in an effort to achieve a Tarantino-esque image.
To an extent, the film risks glorifying the abhorrently selfish and idiotic act of the four students. However, there is a very specific turning point where the fantasy of the heist narrative becomes reality. What was imagined by Warren to be an easy task quickly becomes clumsy and even nauseating. The sight of Miss Gooch, tasered and bound by Warren and Eric, reveals the darkest sides of their characters. The tone of the film drastically shifts here: Gooch wriggling and bound on the floor makes for an uncomfortable watch. The boys are no longer living in their cinematic fantasy but faced with the reality of harming a person for their own gain.
What proceeds after this point in the film is a sobering depiction of the implications of the robbery. The cinematic fantasy held by Warren ends and the film finds a more poignant tone. It is this crucial turning point between fantasy and reality that holds the film together in what would otherwise be a familiar narrative.
The questions of reality and memory that American Animals raises make for an honest portrayal of the events. The characters’ real-life counterparts are shown to disagree about certain details, a fact which is incorporated into the narrative in some interesting fourth-wall breaking, similar to The Big Short. Layton himself stated in a Q&A that watching the film had affected how the men remembered the events unfolding, making the film not only an enjoyable watch, but a thought-provoking demonstration of the power of film.
American Animals is in cinemas now.