There is some distinctly different about “American Animals,” the new movie from writer-director Bart Layton. Where the film, which is the based on the true story of four college students who formulate a plan to steal valuable books from an on-campus library, diverges from being a standard heist tale is with the fact that it offers up interviews with the actual, real-life, people who plotted the robbery.
Layton then has not just set out to give the audience the gripping story of these bumbling fools and their heist, but to question truth and history and perception. By far the best moments in the film are not of the actors portraying the people, but those interviews. There, we see the perpetrators actually question what is happening in the film or say they don’t remember something or attempt to explain their actions.
The shocking, improbable, thing here is that Layton has actually gotten all four of these guys on camera talking about what they did. It seems unimaginable that all of them would agree to participate, but there they are, recounting their version of the events that would eventually lead to their incarceration.
While the real figures are undoubtedly the most interesting, the retelling of the events with the actors is certainly enjoyable as well. We see these four men—Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Eric (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner)—plot out the heist, think it through step by step, and yet still not account for all the potential issues.
Layton does a good job balancing the comedy of errors aspect of the heist with the more serious elements, including the guys’ fears and hesitations and the cast is more than game. Peters is undoubtedly the charismatic standout, although all four acquit themselves well.
It is Keoghan’s Spencer though who is truly at the center of the tale and pitched as a typical sort of student whereas Peter’s Warren is setup as a dreamer and ne’er-do-well. Eric is the planner while Chas is the wheelman. As the movie progresses it never quite seems as though the guys really take to this specific roles, or, perhaps, stay in their lanes. In fact, their roles in the heist ends up feeling like something of a shorthand used in the script to offer a quick explanation of how they all came to be involved rather than the reality of what took place.
This is not to say that it might not be the reality, but if it is, the movie doesn’t argue well for it. There is something off about it.
This isn’t the only place there is something amiss either. Watching the film, the audience gets the sense that edges have been rounded or bits of the story are missing. So, when it comes time for the group to get nicknames, Spencer is given “Mr. Green,” according to the film, that’s because of all the marijuana he smokes. The notion must give the audience pause. If it is meant as a joke, it falls horribly flat. If it is meant seriously, it isn’t something the movie has depicted well. One would imagine, from everything that has appeared on screen, that Warren would have earned the title well before Spencer.
What one wants watching the movie then is really best described as “more.” More insight into why the men thought this was going to work. More insight into the differences between memory and reality. More on what each member expected to get out of the plan. It is a fascinating tale, and it is told in intriguing fashion, but it never quite seems to go deep enough to satisfy all the queries those watching will have.
While it is true that films need not bend to the whims of the audience, in this case the audience’s requests will exist due to promises made by “American Animals,” promises left partially unfulfilled. Layton is, beyond a doubt, on the right track, it just feels as though the train never quite pulls into that final station.
Finally, it seems important to note that Ann Dowd plays the librarian who oversees the important books the men are stealing. While the part is a small one, Dowd adds a certain, almost indefinable, weight to the role.
Whatever shortcomings “American Animals” may have, it still offers the audience a lot to chew on. The questions of memory and reality may never be fully teased out, but leaving the theater people will still be contemplating the issues.
photo credit: The Orchard