There’s something inherently slippery about true crime documentary, where cold hard facts collide with interview subjects whose testimonies might be less than reliable. Filmmakers might be able to pin down what happened, but the why is so much trickier; and the how can be the ultimate mystery. Moviegoers like to think a documentary is the distilled truth. But in Bart Layton’s work, this daring documentarian challenges that concept by relishing in the conflicting accounts of convicted criminals, who may have confessed, but still strive to save face.
In his 2012 feature debut The Imposter, Layton invited audiences to be wooed by an eccentric French con man, who weaseled his way into the home of a humble Southern family by masquerading as their missing teenage son. But Layton takes his exploration of slippery narratives and unreliable narrators to a whole new level with the sophisticated, smart, and wildly entertaining American Animals.
The story at the center of this film is odd and outrageous. Four college students with promising futures risk it all to pull off a heist, snatching extremely rare books from their campus’s library. What begins as a joke between two long-time besties, quickly blooms into an elaborate, all-consuming fantasy. They imagine themselves as the swaggering, cussing heroes of a Quentin Tarantino movie, building scale models to plan, giving each other code names, and meeting up with a mysterious foreign goon to fence the goods. But with each exciting step, they move closer to a perilous point of no return.
Through them, Layton explores the danger of privilege and its ennui. These young men had faced no major obstacles, and with adulthood around the corner feared stagnation in simple suburban lives. They became obsessed with committing the perfect crime, and their insulation of wealth and white privilege made them feel invincible to any consequences. But rather than coldly judging their actions out the gate as ignorant or callous, Layton warmly welcomes his audience in to understand their points of view with a vibrant blending of documentary and narrative film methods.
Though American Animals is bookended by frank interviews with those who knew these students-turned-thieves, the bulk of its story is told through spirited performances from actors Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson. Forget the gauzy re-enactments standard to true crime docs. Layton instead cuts from his interviews to what feels like a zippy teen comedy. Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Ocean’s Eleven. Keoghan kicks off the story as Spencer Reinhard, an aspiring artist who feels his lack of life experience is hindering his work. With wild eyes and a crooked grin, Peters brings to life Warren Lipka, the charismatic goofball who thirsts for trouble and becomes the group’s unlikely ringleader.
Respectively broody and manic, Keoghan and Peters share a kinetic and compelling chemistry. Whether they’re stealing from a meat locker for kicks, getting stoned, or talking shit, theirs is an easy amicability. Peters, in particular, is just flat-out funny, brandishing a wild-card bravado and juvenile humor with a reckless, enchanting abandon. Just as we root for the thieving anti-heroes of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, or Steven Soderbergh, we can’t help but be won over by these roguish fools, who plot meticulously while dedicatedly ignoring the long view.
However, Layton challenges us throughout, reminding this is not “based on a true story” fun. It is a true story, though it’s details are still a matter of debate. He brilliantly illustrates this by introducing the real Lipka and Reinhard, as well as their accomplices Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk. Their one-on-one interviews will interrupt the scripted scenes, either to refute a claim made by their characters or to comment on how it feels to look back on these defining moments. Layton even lets some slide into the narrative. The real-life Lipka shares the front seat of a car with Peters, who asks if this is how he remembers it. In these surreal moments, Layton confronts that memory itself is subjective, transformed by our desires, regrets, and rationalizations.
But as they draw closer to the big moment, there’s an unspoken concern that hangs in the air. What to do with the librarian who stands between them and these treasured books? In their fantasies, no one gets hurt. But as the troubling possibilities fall into place, American Animals drops its lively, irreverent tone. Its subjects’ shrink from smirking and casual to sullen and silent. Here, reality kicks in with all the force of SWAT team. And Layton doesn’t let his subjects or his audience off the hook. He allows our shared fear over the fate of this librarian (played by the brilliant Ann Dowd) to fester. She is the human cost they never could face. And when they must, what truth of themselves will they discover?
I was positively enthralled by this film. By blending interviews and artifice with self-awareness and wit, Layton has created a documentary that is uniquely exhilarating. The narrative bits thrill with the vicarious fun of anticipating the heist. But the interviews intervene, muddying the water, and daring the audience to dig deeper, and question what they’re being shown. Then Layton takes a hard turn, flipping the fun fantasy into the grim reality it’s inescapably barreling towards. Silliness curdles into suspense. The excuses and motivations of these four young men go from amusing to insufficient. Fittingly and poignantly, it’s not they who will get the last word on their story. It’s not they who get to dictate the narrative. American Animals will not give them absolution, just as it won’t give its audience easy answers. Instead, we’re left to wonder what was true, what was a not, and what does it matter.
American Animals played in the Festival Favorites slate at the SXSW Conference, ahead of its theatrical debut on June 1st.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com