Cast: Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson
Director: Bart Layton
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
The true story at the heart of Bart Layton's American Animals should have been relegated to a fading news headline, as this fiction/nonfiction hybrid centered around the stealing of rare books from a Kentucky college’s library gives us four white young men smugly attempting to atone for their sins. Structured like a heist thriller using actors portraying the criminals in question with cutaways to the actual people who committed those crimes, American Animals isn't interested in the murky line between fact and fiction. Nor does it investigate the mythologizing of the lonely American male. Instead, Layton's main aim here seems to be a low-rent Rififi homage, and on that level, the film is a failure. Beyond that, it's existence feels utterly pointless.
The basic premise is this: bored college friends Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) hatch a scheme to heist some rare books; including Audubon’s The Birds of America and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from the Transylvania University library. These are aimless dopes who hope to conjure some transcendent life experience, because smoking pot and ditching class just isn't cutting it anymore. They watch heist movies like The Killing and Reservoir Dogs, build mock dioramas and meticulous blueprints of the library, and get drunk on the possibilities of pulling off something so audacious. Upon realizing that they'll need more firepower, they bring in two friends, Chas and Eric (Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson) to round out their crew. All the while, Layton cuts to interviews with the real-life perpetrators and other family members. Sometimes, the actors interact with their non-fiction counterparts during the "fictionalized" parts of the story. Sometimes, the various people involved have different recollections about how everything went down.
The stylistic gimmicks employed throughout American Animals only highlight the film's disingenuousness. If this is a story about deluded privilege or the instability of memory, then Layton refuses to coalesce these themes satisfactorily. If the sight of the real Spencer, Warren, Chas, and Eric staring into the camera at the recollection of traumatizing a helpless librarian during the botched robbery is supposed to be cathartic, then the film edges towards exploitation. If the music video-like montages set to blaring pop tunes are purposefully evoking the empty promise of the Tarantino generation, then maybe American Animals is onto something? The scene where the petty criminals mistreat the female librarian (played by Anne Dowd) and then cut directly to the real-life men looking remorseful, however, roundly disproves this notion.
American Animals offers up a possible path of redemption for stupid young men who one time did a stupid thing. If these were people of color who pulled the same crime, there certainly wouldn't have been a movie made glorifying their bumbling ineptitude, and they'd probably still be in prison. It's a sad irony which American Animals seems completely unaware of, too enamored with its faux-heist signifiers and Eroll Morris-lite pretensions to grapple with yet another story humanizing bored white criminals.