No stranger to documentaries, in his under-the-radar 2018 creation Bart Layton seamlessly blurs the lines between reality and fiction as the real men from the near-unbelievable story occasionally act as talking heads, but in no ordinary fashion. Occasionally they offer their perspective, sometimes contradicting or altering what happens in the fictional retelling, only the start of the shenanigans surrounding this device.
Obviously not the first time this approach has been used, American Animals grabs it and makes it its own. The transitions are not only smooth and coherent, they all add a clear sense of clarity to the film rather than detracting from it or offering overblown exposition. This is for the most part due to the fictional retelling taking most of the airspace, while the real mens’ observations are used somewhere between sparingly and occasionally: rarely at typical junctures and almost always in a unique way.
Layton is creative in using this approach with documentary experience behind him, often employing using misdirection and humour to throw viewers off the scent as we are never quite sure what or who to believe, and what to see as pure fiction. Some of the story is even based on this very device as the real men admit that they could be remembering an event from their point of view or anothers’, legitimately not knowing. More bizarre moments occur between the real characters and the fake ones, creating intentionally confusing moments that keep the laughs coming while continually stoking the fire as to what is true and what isn’t.
This framework of the film is the most interesting facet of American Animals, but the actual story is a very close second. Spencer (another perfect turn from Barry Keoghan) is in college but the looks on his face makes it obvious that he feels unfulfilled, aimless in where he is to go next. He looks utterly disinterested in what is happening around him, until when on a tour with his class, he sees incredibly rare books and artwork, among them Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ and Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’, hence the title of the film, the most expensive of the collection. The college is proud to own both these and other works: combined they are worth several millions.
And so the idea is planted.
It occurs to Barry that if these are worth millions, and kept safe by only one librarian, it could be a logical, feasible idea to steal them, if not to simply break away from the monotony of his current life. Indeed then, rather than a bank or a criminal’s lair, the heist in American Animals is literally the library section of a college. But this doesn’t change the intensity or the edge-of-your seat action that is to follow.
A vague plan forms in Spencer’s head about stealing the valuable work, a plan he never chooses to solidify until he makes the mistake of telling his fantasy his certifiably insane friend Warren (Evan Peters, stealing the show), who takes the meager idea in Spencer’s head and immediately jumps on it as brilliant, suddenly turning Spencer’s fantasy into realty.
Warren begins to plan the heist, step by step, deciding who they need to add to their crew and then dishing out names inspired by Reservoir Dogs, of course for the same reason, to remain anonymous when addressing each other. Humorously, one is dubbed ‘Mr. Pink’, who of course none too pleased. But Warren is a stubborn, crazy bastard and doesn’t budge as he takes an almost OCD approach to the planning.
When it is party time, the effort he goes to is meticulous as they all use make up, fake beards and great hair-liner to disguise themselves as old people. As Warren says, old people fade into the background, and before entering the college he reiterates: “Remember, you’re old!” prompting each of them to walk like they have a bad hip.
These heist scenes are near perfectly shot as it unfolds in many stages of intensity, some scenes almost seeming like they have been sped up as the tension mounted is so high. Many parts are darkly funny, again mostly due to Warren, but he refuses to believe he can fail and is willing to do all the dirty work necessary to reach his now single-minded goal.
All actors involved are great, especially Ann Dowd as the Librarian, but shining brightly is Evan Peters as Warren, who has an infectious energy that burns for the entire film, even if some of his ideas sound slightly insane. Additionally, Barry Keoghan shows yet more range since most of us first saw him in Dunkirk. In addition that and his oddly creepy and menacing role in Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer has him with three unique characters. All though are shy in different ways, each time he has taken this trait and has turned it into a memorable performance. It would be interesting though to really see him come out of his shell soon and play an important character who is out-going in nature. Certainly one of the best young actors around at the moment, and as for Bart Layton, this film puts his name on the map and many will wait patiently for what he will create next. Another documentary focused film? Perhaps the next logical step is a film based on a real story. Whichever it is, I’m looking forward to it.
A full sixer, I just can’t stop watching this one.
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