There are plenty of films that have merged the style of documentary with fiction film, but few have done so as effectively and compellingly as Bart Layton’s American Animals.
A crime story with a twist, we know we’re in for something interesting when the title card explicitly tells us this is not a true story, only to have the negative huffed away maintaining that, yes, some of the work is testimony from those that were involved in the events that are described in the film. We’re treated not only to these two films in one, we’re also shown explicitly the divisions between the reflections of those testifying to their past. The term Rashomon-like may be bandied freely, but even dear Akira would have been thrilled by this non-fiction/fiction hybrid.
From the performance standpoint we’ve got a group of fine young actors led by Barry Keoghan who is making quite the splash over the last few years. Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner make up the rest of the motley crew that bandy together to pull off a heist at their local college library.
Since what we’re being treated to is the recollections of those that actually perpetrated the events, Layton beautifully frames the recreation using the tools of Hollywood heist films. Echoes to Oceans 11 and Reservoir Dogs abound as overt allusions, further emphasizing the strange way that cinema can affect our ways of thinking and behaving.
It’s when things get messy that the work diverges from the slickness of the referenced works and the harshness of reality rears its ugly head. The precision of this transition is a testimony to Layton’s capacity to maintain control while shifting tone radically.
As we intercut between the words of the participants and the actions acted out by the ensemble we see clearly illustrated the myriad of contractions and betrayals at play. The failures that are shown are no less engaging than the catharsis that traditional Hollywood heists would portray, and it’s this subversion of both genre expectation and normal ways of reading documentary that further elevate the work.
There are moments when the flow of the work drops a little, yet for the most part the narrative provides a thrilling ride as we delve deeper into what makes these characters tick.
Some may decry that the film somehow helps justify ill behaviour, but this ignores just how well the film does at dispassionately showing the messiness of the situation. There is no glorification here, and throughout there’s a layer of incompetence and hubris that’s the tragic flaw of all involved in the original theft.
The film is far more than an exercise in crafting this doc/fiction hybrid, yet the form is certainly one of the most exciting and remarkable things about the piece. Taking our fascination with true crime and setting it on its head, this is a film that confronts the challenges of accurately telling this kind of story in a truthful way when the actual events are seen through the different perspectives of those involved.
American Animals brilliantly confronts the epistemological conundrum at the heart of crafting truthful non-fiction while simultaneously undercutting the tools that fiction films use to elevate these based-on-life tales. Combined we’re treated to a highly entertaining, highly sophisticated hybrid that gets to the heart of the storytelling of narratives like this, forming a blistering, intelligent and delightful work that manages to both entertain and provoke.