American Animals is based on one of the most ridiculous heists in recent memory. In 2004, four mostly well-off college students planned to steal valuable books from Transylvania University’s library in Lexington, Kentucky. These four boys thought they were clever, but in reality, they were some of the biggest boobs in America, getting their inspiration from classic heist movies.
One of the biggest pulls into American Animals is director Bart Layton’s unique style of filmmaking. Coming from primarily a documentary background, Layton meshes fact with fiction. When American Animals opens, text appears on the screen stating “This is not based on a true story.” Seconds later, the “Not Based On” drops out, and we’re left with “This is a true story.”
This is because the film is interwoven with the fictional portrayal of the event and interviews with the real Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen giving their commentary on what happened (think I, Tonya except if the actual Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly were speaking in the interview segments).
This interesting approach to filmmaking gives this basic heist movie a special type of flair. The real perpetrators let the audience into their minds during that particularly stressful time. Layton even implements unreliable narration with the subjects contradicting each other on how specific situations went down.
Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan have fun portraying their counterparts. Keoghan plays Spencer, an introverted artist who’s content with his boring life. Peters plays Warren, the slacker who prefers to complain about how society is screwing him over. Peters has always shown intensity on American Horror Story, but he has proven that he can take on movie roles. Despite having a sports scholarship and a well-off family, Warren feels like he’s missing something out of life. He’s bored and tired of the same-old routine. He comes off as confident to his friends, but deep down he’s lonely and sad. Peters does an astounding job of balancing these emotions and creating a wild performance out of it.
The only problem is that Layton doesn’t quite know what tone he wanted to achieve. At first, it starts off as a goofy heist movie with the real subjects being just as silly as their fictional counterparts. And then, the second half takes a dark turn when the boys (both real and fictional) start to think twice about their actions. It’s precisely when they have to assault the one librarian who’s guarding the books that the real tears begin to come down. You can sense the regret as they try to tell the story and it feels unnerving to sympathize when we were just ridiculing them earlier.
Without Layton’s unconventional style, American Animals would just be another heist movie. But with the documentary style woven into the narrative, it turns into a film about privilege and the lies of the American Dream. The characters may not outright say why they decided to do what they did, but after seeing how the subjects react 14 years later, it’s quite clear.