By: Billy Cross
What conspires in Bart Layton’s latest docudrama, American Animals, is a wholly capital “A” American thing. It’s a cautionary tale about the miasma of success and its pressures in society – but it’s also about watching a bunch of movies and stealing books from the library. As absurd as it sounds, it’s completely true.
Set in 2004, Barry Keoghan (of “Killing of a Sacred Deer”) plays Spencer Reinhard, a promising artist attending Transylvanian University who spots incredibly rare books, including Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the Audubon bird book, during a tour of the library. These books are worth millions. He mentions to his buddy, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), about the value of the books, who gets the crazy idea to steal them. They recruit two more lost souls, Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), to help them carry out their plan, which eventually involves “neutralizing” the librarian (Ann Dowd) in charge of the special collections room in order to nab them goods.
Much like his previous film, The Imposter, Layton shoots in semi-documentary form, which includes interviews with the real-life folks that made it all happen, interjecting with commentary. At times, they will directly influence what is on screen, like rewinding the scene, Funny Games style, to retell an exchange, or changing the color of a scarf. This style breaks up the formalism in interesting ways, but the ideas are completely ditched half way through the movie.
As far as heists go, American Animals is no Le Cercle Rouge – not that it’s a bad thing. What it lacks in style, it makes up for in the joy of watching these kids botch their plan in all the worst ways. It’s cringe-y fun. There’s a scene that involves the library’s elevator that’s straight out of a slapstick comedy. Layton’s techniques are clever at times; he draws you in with same tropes that seduced the four college dudes watching movies, you almost forget how poorly planned their heist is.