Dramatised non-fiction is old territory for director Bart Layton whose first feature documentary The Imposter included tense re-enactment. His latest work takes things even further in an attempt to intertwine documentary and drama even more tightly. American Animals, based on a shambolic real-life heist at an American University in 2004, is for the most part a fictional re-telling of astonishing true events. Led by stand out performances from both Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan, the film is frequently intersected with interviews and responses from the central characters and naive masterminds. Two young men, disillusioned by their college experience and the realisation that what lies ahead is the mundane, permanent misery of adulthood, set about planning a robbery. The loot: highly valuable and incredibly rare books located in the University library, guarded by a single librarian. More than half the film is dedicated to the mere planning of the crime in which the boys watch heist cinema greats and construct a miniature layout of the room they intend to steal from. Everything is carried out beneath a thick haze of pot and discussed in detail on late night drives around their dead-end neighbourhood. As the day of the robbery draws closer, the young men’s commitment to the heist in tested – are they simply trying to find meaning in their own uninspired existence, in which the future seems to be mapped out for them by distanced parents? As the story develops, the actual subjects interject with contrasting and often contradictory recollections of what lead them to commit the crime at the centre of the film’s story.
Evan Peters is somewhat remarkable as Wayne, the unpredictable chaos-maker and ring-leader; it’s a career best. His performance is raw, full of rage and intensely animated. Peters is reminiscent of a younger Johnny Depp; an actor to be excited about, whose every word you hang onto. It’s yet another wise choice of film for Barry Keoghan who remains an unsettling but unique screen presence. It took me time to be comfortable with the combination of fiction and non-fiction at the heart of American Animals, finding it originally hard to believe that these were in fact the actual individuals being interviewed and not another set of actors. An hour in I was won over by this unusual approach to the story which could easily be perceived by some as simply gimmicky. I can’t help but wish Layton had managed to dig deeper into a larger, unspoken problem at the story’s core – one of abhorrent white male privilege and a crisis of identity more frequently being experienced by isolated young adults. More than anything, American Animals worked for me as a love letter to an extensive history of divine heist cinema. The boys take great pleasure in naming themselves, and each other, Mr. Yellow or Mr. Pink whilst one of them observes “Didn’t they all die at the end of that movie, anyway?” In one sequence, DVD cases of Rififi, Point Break and more are visible as the boys devour both popcorn and ideas. American Animals captures something that it doesn’t quite have time to fully explore but remains, all the same, a smart heist film in its own right; bringing with it new ideas and ambitious experiments that makes for highly engaging cinema – in regards to both narrative and technique.
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