Documentarian Bart Layton blurs the line between fact and fiction in his compelling heist drama.
In order to understand why four young, middle-class, white men from Kentucky would risk serious prison time by stealing some of the world’s most valuable books from their university library, director Bart Layton shrewdly chooses to blend fact and fiction.
The real men appear in interviews to each give their version of events, their diverging testimonies functioning as the ever-shifting building blocks of the fictionalisation that Layton presents with a cast of brilliant actors. The two masterminds are Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard, a young painter worried that his life is too safe and boring to make him a good artist, and the excellent Evan Peters playing bad boy Warren Lipka, always up for sending a ‘fuck you’ to the system. Making their delusions of grandeur clearly visible, this narrative device is more than a gimmick: they are literally the stars of their own movie.
Looking back to the classics of crime cinema, depiction is not always endorsement, but denying the appeal of, say, Sterling Hayden’s hardboiled thief in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing would be disingenuous. Glamorously defying society has always been an enticing feature of cinema, and the (anti-)heroes of American Animals have also succumbed to the appeal of gangster movies.
What separates them from you and I is that they maintained their suspension of disbelief after the end credits – or rather never suspended it in the first place, instead taking Kubrick’s high-flying act at face value. Inspired by the heroes of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Reinhard and Lipka, with additional muscle in the form of Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), planned and executed, in 2004, one of the most audacious and ludicrous heists in modern history.
The juxtaposition of documentary and fiction filmmaking in American Animals reveals the dangerous power of imagination. Once Reinhard got it in his head that he could steal valuable items which Danny Ocean would not hesitate to stealthily make his, it only took Lipka’s bravado to get the snowball rolling. Soon enough, their lives became consumed by planning the perfect robbery. Layton goes much further in his attack on self-fictionalisation. Erasing the line between fact and fantasy, he makes the real-life protagonists face the plausibility of their subjective recollections by having them physically enter his reenactments and talk to their impersonators.
This brutal confrontation is at once exhilarating and eerie. Opening up new possibilities for ‘based on a true story’ narrative cinema, it reminds us of our unavoidable accountability to the truth: the men soon realise that none of them know exactly what happened because each was too preoccupied with his own ‘truth’.
When a bystander is hurt by the group’s foolish and deeply selfish actions, Layton returns to the talking heads as the young men awaken to reality. Shaken out of their daydreams, they are finally out of words, sobbing and trying to avoid the camera’s inescapable gaze. From the absurd story of four self-centred and bored friends, Layton has created a powerful hybrid film which decries, with entertaining panache and urgency, the utter nonsense of ‘alternative facts’.
Published 3 Sep 2018
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