VOD film review: American Animals
James R | On 25, Jan 2019
Director: Bart Layton
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters
“This is not based on a true story”, declares the opening titles for American Animals, before the words “not based on” disappear. It’s a playful, surprising, intriguing move that sets the tone for what’s to come: a jaw-dropping deconstruction of truth and fiction that’s smartly conceived, expertly paced and grippingly executed.
The film takes as its jumping off point the (actually) true story about four college students who plan to steal a bunch of rare books from a university library. But what might have been a straight fictionalised version of events with a moderately starry cast becomes something much more as events begin to unfold – and, just as we think we know what’s going on, up pop some experts to tell us otherwise. The experts? The actual students themselves, now grown up and looking back on their actions.
It’s an inspired conceit, one that places us somewhere between dramatic reconstruction and talking heads, true crime and heist flick, between this guy’s word and that other guy’s word. It’s testament to just how good director Bart Layton is that you’d expect such impressive filmmaking from the helmer of The Imposter, and he doesn’t drop the ball throughout his agile antics; he makes sure the momentum is driven by the dramatic scenes, using the real life interviews to contradict and commentate the pacing, never letting the ground stop shifting beneath our feet.
That also lets the film play with cinema tropes too, borrowing explicitly from other movies (from Ocean’s Eleven to Reservoir Dogs). And yet it’s not just lightweight, humorous fun; Layton’s intertextual layers inform and undermine his characters, reminding us that they’re as dumb as they are bold (they seem all too unaware, for example, of how Reservoir Dogs ends). The fireworks that begin behind the camera slowly move in front of it, as the students start to question each other as much as we do. Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer MVP) is fantastic as Spencer, the uncertain student who hatches the heist scheme in the first place, while Evan Peters (X-Men’s Quicksilver) is wonderfully arrogant as Warren, whom Spencer wants to impress, and who claims to have a fence in Amsterdam – but does he? And does he even manage to meet them?
“We’re talking about $12m in rare books, and one old lady guarding it!” one of the increasingly fragmented quartet cries, a line that’s as hilarious as it is jarringly serious – a reminder amid the frenetic excitement that the stakes are real (Ann Dowd plays the librarian with typically convincing gravitas), that the gloss of the movies doesn’t apply to reality, and that our self-appointed heroes, part of a generation constantly aspiring for something more meaningful, are far from it.