“You’ve seen too many movies.” It’s a line that’s almost as old as the movies themselves. And yet, in reality, very few people have actually seen too many movies (and most of those people are film critics). More often, the trouble is that someone hasn’t seen enough movies. Case in point: Bart Layton’s “American Animals.”
Had the film-loving twentysomethings at the heart of this real-life heist story bothered to watch the “Rififi” DVD they rent from their local Blockbuster, perhaps they would have known how these stories usually end (though a deep knowledge of “Reservoir Dogs” doesn’t seem to faze them). Had any of them taken the time to revisit “Fight Club” (because there’s no way these kids haven’t seen “Fight Club”), perhaps they wouldn’t have needed to throw their lives away in order to make peace with the notion that they’re not as special as their mothers led them to believe.
But no, they’ve seen just enough movies to get themselves into trouble. Just enough movies to arrive at some very simple truths in the hardest way possible.
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Appropriately, “American Animals” is nothing if not a movie that arrives at some very simple truths in the hardest way possible. A slick, well-acted, and intensely self-reflexive docudrama from the director of “The Impostor,” Layton’s first narrative feature (whatever that means) takes a remarkable footnote from our country’s recent history and sticks it inside an infinity mirror, creating a sort of Walmart Kiarostami that works too hard to sell its structure, and not hard enough to justify its subject.
“This is not based on a true story,” pledges the opening title card. But then, just as soon as you’ve had a nice chuckle, some words fade away: “This is a true story” reads what’s left.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Layton quickly begins to make sense of that swagger. Taking us to Lexington, Kentucky circa 2004, “American Animals” introduces us to a self-doubting artist named Spencer (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” breakout Barry Keoghan). Then, in no uncertain terms, it introduces the real Spencer, who’s staring directly into the camera sometime in 2017. Talking-head testimony from Spencer’s parents makes it clear that their son did something very wrong, and we’re going to hear about it as the people involved remember the events, however murky their memories might be.
The kind of thing that Robert Greene could make in his sleep if he wanted to go commercial, “American Animals” is essentially a narrative feature and a documentary spliced together and forced to compete for our faith. In most films of this nature, any re-enactments are subservient to the evidence, meant to add dimension to whatever the people are saying on screen. Layton’s trick is to flip the script, framing the gorgeously shot re-enactments as the movie’s default mode, and only cutting to the real people when they have light to shed on the heist movie in progress.
That heist movie takes shape in a hurry, with the half-remembered fantasy increasingly adhering to genre norms as it goes along and falls apart. Spencer’s frustrations spark into action once he meets football-scholarship burnout Warren (“X-Men” star Evan Peters, considerably more hostile and darkly charismatic than his goofy real-life counterpart). Overnight, they hatch a plan too good to be true: They’re going to break into the special-collection section of the Transylvania University Library — home to some of the world’s rarest books — and steal John James Audubon’s massive tome, “The Birds of America.”
And maybe, if there’s time, also Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species,” and a few other classics. Tens of millions of dollars worth of treasures, guarded by one prim middle-aged lady (Ann Dowd). It’s the perfect crime. Spencer and Warren recruit an unmotivated math guru (Jared Abrahamson) and a beefy overachiever (Blake Jenner) and they’re off to the races.
“American Animals” is fiercely entertaining from start to finish, even when its characters are acting so dumb that you start to suspect they still have some more evolving to do. Layton has a flair for translating cerebral documentary concepts into the universally accessible language of cinematic suspense, and he finds a number of clever ways to blur the line between reality and his hyper-stylized version of it. Details, like the color of a scarf, are as mutable as memories. At one point, Warren and the actor playing him share a conversation in the front seat of a car.
The distance between the movies and real life is enjoyably elastic, especially when Spencer’s crew doles out Tarantino-inspired nicknames and rehearses their plans to the Elvis tune from “Ocean’s Eleven.” The less said about the painfully obvious needle-drops the better, but it’s worth mentioning that “Hurdy Gurdy Man” belongs to “Zodiac” now. You don’t get to use it.
But amusement isn’t the problem — these kids were perfectly able to amuse themselves. The problem is that Layton over-relies on form in a film that needed a lot more to fill it out. There’s a tiny bit of lip service about Spencer’s frustration over not feeling special — about how desperately he wants something interesting to happen in his life — but it’s far too sketchy to serve as proper motivation for the heist. The other three members of his crew are even more underwritten, with Chas’ participation seemingly in direct contradiction with his personality and potential.
It’s easy to appreciate how these morons get carried away, and how thoroughly they delude themselves into thinking they have what it takes to neutralize an elderly librarian, but their profound stupidity forms a closed loop, bouncing between past and present without ever meaningfully touching on anything besides their own entitlement. Layton’s attempt to complicate things only simplify them further, humiliating subjects who have already paid their debt to society. Spencer and Co. haven’t seen too many movies; they’ve just cast themselves in the wrong one.
“American Animals” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.