About a minute into writer-director Bart Layton’s American Animals, the screen flashes: “This is not based on a true story.” The text lingers on the screen for a moment until a few of the words disappear to reveal a follow-up message: “This is a true story.” That’s a bold move, but it’s one that the film, which relates the real-life events surrounding the heisting of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library, never really earns. Layton’s film combines a crime-thriller treatment of the theft and its lead-up with talking-head interviews with the actual participants in the events, but for all its blurring of documentary and fiction techniques, American Animals is a heist film at heart, albeit one that hews closely to the historical record.
Layton doesn’t interrogate the line between fiction and reality, a la Abbas Kiarostami, or search for ecstatic truth in the mingling of fact and myth, a la Werner Herzog. But as he showed in The Imposter, he knows how to spin a compelling yarn. Layton turns an ill-conceived plot hatched by two college kids—diffident art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and his nihilistic, sweet-talking buddy Warren (Evan Peters)—into a gripping tale of amateur criminals who are in way over their heads. As their previous criminal exploits amount to little more than petty theft, their intent to purloin some rare first editions—Audubon’s The Birds of America, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and others—held in Transylvania University’s library is nothing short of audacious. Driven more by their own aimlessness than by need or greed, Spencer and Warren are united by their shared desire for a life-altering experience, some great event that will pull them out of the rut of the mundane.
Warren and Spencer are too busy getting off on the thrill of being criminals to develop the sort of fastidious plans that would seem necessary to carry off a crime of this magnitude. Their preparations mostly consist of getting high and watching heist movies, like The Killing, and there’s a sense that if they paid closer attention to Stanley Kubrick’s film then they’d realize that these things rarely go according to plan. Warren and Spencer are smart enough to realize they can’t pull off this job alone, recruiting two friends, Chas and Eric (Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson), to help them out, but the crew’s preparations are a lopsided mix of the impressively meticulous (hand-drawn and detailed blueprints of the library) and the risibly pointless (everyone is given color-coded nicknames, like the characters in Reservoir Dogs).
The would-be thieves aren’t the only ones borrowing from Quentin Tarantino, as Layton’s soundtrack of hip-pop tunes, as well as his use of slow-mo effects and quasi-music video interludes, owes no small debt to QT. But Layton’s overall style is more baroque than Tarantino’s, what with its rich, chiaroscuro compositions, center-framed interview segments in the style of Errol Morris, and the occasional surreal flourish, such as Spencer’s vision of a flamingo in the middle of the road. The film generates a palpable tension around the heist hinging on a moment of violence that seems so banal and minor in theory but which turns out to be a grueling ordeal to actually carry out.
Layton is fascinated by the Rashomon-like discrepancies in the crew members’ stories, particularly a major aspect of Warren’s tale that may have been created out of whole cloth, but the moments when Layton calls attention to the vagaries of memory and storytelling aren’t meaningfully integrated into the film’s central narrative. The extraneousness of such details is a byproduct of a deeper issue with American Animals—that, fundamentally, the film isn’t really about anything. In the final minutes, one can feel Layton stabbing around for some thematic closure. Is this a story about selfishness? Group psychology? The fuzziness of truth? Layton can’t seem to decide, and so, in the end, the film feels as pointless as the botched heist at its center, which ultimately leaves the guys in the crew with nothing but a good story to tell.