American Animals: Who Shall I Say Is Calling?, by David Bax
Before anything else happens in Bart Layton’s cheeky and slyly acrimonious American Animals, we are told, via title card, “This is not based on a true story.” The joke here is that, while the movie is in fact a dramatization of real life events, what it’s really based on is a compendium of the way those events are remembered by those directly or indirectly involved. By this approach, Layton’s found a way to give the perpetrators of an insipid true crime tale the showcase they want while also giving them enough rope to hang themselves.
American Animals (the first film to be acquired by MoviePass Ventures, for whatever that’s worth) is based on a 2004 art theft at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, where the library’s rare books department was robbed by four students in the middle of the day, leaving behind a librarian–assaulted with a stun gun and tied up–and few other witnesses.
Layton is known for documentaries, particularly 2012’s The Imposter, and American Animals marks something of a soft transition to fictionalized storytelling. Talking head-style interviews with various people, including the four thieves and some of their family members, dot the movie, especially in the first act, offering us background details and potential explanations for the decisions that were made leading up to and during the daring heist.
That these accounts and reasons sometimes contradict one another, depending on who’s doing the talking, is largely the point. Layton avoids the obvious, Rashomon-inspired trick of showing the same events unfolding in different ways and instead shows the real people involved, interviewed separately, refuting or acknowledging other versions. Layton then pieces together a version of the scene that’s a compromise or an appeasement. At one point, he stages a crucial conversation at a party, the way Warren Lipka (portrayed by Evan Peters) remembers it and then has it continue in the car on the way home, the way Spencer Reinhard (portrayed by Barry Keoghan) remembers it. Then, when Keoghan-as-Spencer pops into a convenience store, Layton places the real Warren in the car with Peters, acknowledging that this is not their recollection of how things went down.
Wisely, Layton pulls back on these tricks the closer we get to the heist itself. Clearly the most cinematic element of the story, it’s the part you’d want to see recreated even if this were a straightforward documentary. When we get to the depiction of the crime, the results are more anxiety-inducing than thrilling. That’s largely due to the fact that months of preparation by these amateurs did little to prepare them emotionally for the task but it’s also partly due to the fact that the interviews have made us more able to identify the reasons they’re doing this at all.
It’s here that American Animals becomes subversive, both of its genre and of the versions of these young men they believe they are offering up in the interviews. Perhaps the most important element of this true story is that the perpetrators were comfortable, upper middle class kids, a truth Layton never explicitly addresses but instead enforces visually through production design and location shooting or via multiple plot points that suggest the money required to set this all up in the first place isn’t much of an obstacle to the young men. So why, then, did they do it? It clearly wasn’t out of financial desperation. Was it boredom? No, Layton is going for something more complex than that and what he comes up with is something akin to Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, minus the crucial element of race. American Animals is a depiction of bourgeois angst, the frustration of well-off kids who see the paved road of their own future and are unmoved by it. What makes the movie good is that it is also a condemnation of same, illustrating just how quickly those worries burn off in the face of the alternative, a difficult life.