American Animals (2018)

American Animals first published by RealCrime Magazine

“This is not based on a true story,” reads text at the beginning of Bart Layton’s American Animals – only for the words ‘not based on’ to disappear. This latest from the director of documentary The Imposter (2012) reconstructs a very real library heist that was conducted at the improbably named Transylvania University in late 2004, but constantly doubles back on its own story, showing us multiple contradictory versions of single events, as the film struggles to reconcile the differing, sometimes fanciful perspectives not just of old school friends turned undergraduates Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), but also of the real four, interviewed years later (and occasionally, impossibly, appearing in the scenes of the crime).

If there is an ongoing negotiation here between truth and fiction, right down to the film’s unstable narrative form, then that is because Spencer and Warren are caught between the mundane disappointment of their life and likely destiny in Bush-era Kentucky, and their fantasies of becoming something extraordinary. Those fantasies are a version of the American dream – of seizing an opportunity and making one’s own fortune – although the film’s title is (expressly) a phrase from Darwin’s On The Origin of the Species, which was, along with Audubon’s The Birds of America, among the first editions which the boys planned to steal. A tattoo on Warren’s arm depicting a dinosaur trying to switch on a ceiling fan suggests that for these boys, evolution has reached some sort of endpoint.

The boys’ fantasies are rooted in cinema. They borrow heist movie DVDs from Blockbuster for inspiration (themselves turning monochrome as they watch Kubrick’s The Killing), and Warren irrationally apportions each of them a colour-coded nickname, as in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The robbery itself is shown first in a fluid single take as a perfectly coordinated and executed plan in the perpetrators’ idealising heads, and then in an aborted version, and finally in a more improvised, less meticulous form where almost everything goes wrong. As Layton makes sexy fiction an on-screen accomplice to messier reality, he gradually focuses on the violent consequences that the young men prefer to erase from their visionary plot.

Strap: Lost young men pursue American dream.

© Anton Bitel