Director: Bart Layton
Stars: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner
To what extent are movies culpable in real life crimes? It’s a question that rears its head with regularity, particularly when the perpetrator(s) are young. Popular culture has a self-evident influence over our lives, shaping (but not defining) our preferences and politics, and perhaps also taking a larger role in our moods and well-being than we might want to admit. American Animals, the new film from Bart Layton, toys with these ideas, presenting a nagging picture of masculine vacuity in the early 2000s.
Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is a privileged malcontent in the Benjamin Braddock mould. He attends Transylvania University in Kentucky yet feels as though his life is ill-defined and lacking in a sense of mythic drama. It’s a sensation shared by his shadier friend Warren (Evan Peters). One day while visiting the local library, Spencer has the germ of an idea to change all of that. The library is home to some of the rarest books in the world, including a colossal set of volumes by painter John Joe Audobon. What if… what if… the boys could pull off a heist so close to home? Wouldn’t the inherent danger grant their lives meaning?
Spencer and Warren watch scores of heist movies in preparation for a project neither of them seems certain will come to fruition, and indeed it is painted (always intend your puns) as an enjoyable theoretical obsession more than a get-rich-quick scam. The shared riches are never the point. So much so that the subject isn’t even broached when they cagily decide they need to bring two more into the fold; strategist Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and wheel man Chas (Blake Jenner). Chas is even shown as upper middle-class. Their new cohorts aren’t just extra bodies, but kindred spirits. Layton builds a picture of an entire generation in need of a purpose.
These are young men searching for meaning in post-Y2K, post-Fight Club America; their directionless lives immediately the subject of movies and television shows. They romanticise their planned crime, failing to fully confront the realities of what they’re proposing. They intend to disguise themselves as old men, an idea pitched with sincerity, but which looks woefully foolish in practice. While the heist itself will run anything but smoothly…
Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s recent BBC series Secrets Of Cinema devoted a whole hour to heist movies, breaking down the rules and expectations of the genre and what specifically makes such films tick. Layton’s film adheres neatly to the template examined in that brisk deconstruction, spending an hour on the plotting, racking up the tension and the questions. Duly, the second act peaks with the suspenseful heist itself, while the third charts the inevitable unwinding into either success or squalor.
But these days you need a gimmick, and Layton has one, albeit one you’ll see coming if you encountered his last film, 2012’s docu-drama The Imposter. Narration of American Animals is handed over to the real Spencer, Warren, Chas and Eric, who appear before the camera, telegraphing failure with hangdog expressions and contemplative deliveries (or is that just a tricky double bluff?). It’s a risky manuevre liable to alienate as many as it appeals to, recasting the film as an elaborate reconstruction and fuzzing the lines of genre. Yet where The Imposter failed (in this viewer’s eyes) for its bias toward one narrative point-of-view, American Animals gets playful with the very notion of truth vs memory.
Infrequently, Layton has a scene pause and replay as different members of the team recount their version of a moment, thereby underscoring the hazy role of perception and recollection in any supposed ‘true’ story. Just as the characters (who aren’t just characters) mix-up fantasy and reality, so American Animals itself concedes that a documentary is only as reliable as its sources.
Layton still spends a majority of his time on his dramatisation, which is fortunate as he has an abundance of talent at his disposal. Keoghan impressed greatly last year in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, and his work here is in a similarly twitchy vein, albeit with a little more warmth than Yorgos Lanthimos is inclined to elicit. Evan Peters, meanwhile, shrugs off the burden of the X-Men franchise and strides remarkably forward, his bratty confidence and mischievous grin keenly recalling a young Malcolm McDowell. Blake Jenner, meanwhile, conjures memories of a young Ben Affleck, and appears to have taken his own strides since Everybody Wants Some!!
Layton loves a fraud or a trickster. His fondness skewed The Imposter and similarly threatens to tip American Animals. He loves his rascals a little too much, and goes to great pains to cast them as good honest boys who just had one-too-many daydreams. The film recognises that their escapade begot at least one direct victim, but that voice is conspicuously marginalised in favour of having the apologetic culprits shed a tear for the camera. It seems Layton, too, is susceptible to the appealing myth of the American outlaw. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his next project turned out to be a eulogising Western.
His fondness for these young men translates through the screen with great ease, however, something ably abetted by such stellar turns. American Animals is very easy to watch. Layton has become a more confident filmmaker, and it evidences in flashy editing and ambitious soundtrack choices that attempt to rub shoulders with established modern American auteurs (Fincher, PT Anderson) and even contemporary heist flicks (the Oceans films).
American Animals moves with a swagger, and while there’s time enough at the end for regrets and laments, it’s the enthusiasm of the picture that settles in the aftermath. Don’t you just wish life was as exciting as it is in the movies?