In American Animals, director Bart Layton implicitly asks how four otherwise unremarkable suburban college-age kids could end up “masterminding” the biggest—and most inconceivably inept—rare-book heist since Guttenberg invented the printing press 600 years ago. It’s a question bound to spark spirited debates over aimless youth, the alienating effects of internet-enhanced media, and failed American culture.
Layton’s first film, The Imposter (2012), was an impossibly perplexing but true story about a missing teen, earning him a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Director. Once again, he blends live-action and talking-head documentary footage, this time giving greater emphasis to dramatic narrative.
Layton has a number of cinematic tricks up his sleeve which he employs to depict backstory and inner state of the characters. As in The Imposter, he inserts segments of running commentary from the real-life participants whose versions of the “facts” aren’t always in sync.
The four young men have very different personalities, except in one respect: they all share a sense of spiritual vacuity, compounded by a pervasive fear they will remain mired in a state of quiet desperation for the rest of their lives. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is an introverted artist longing to fill an inner void he can’t quite articulate: “Art has to be more than, ‘My life is great and I’m really good at drawing.’” Warren (Evan Peters) is the ringleader, a Danny Ocean wannabe who never met a boundary he wouldn’t cross.
As they concoct their plan, the boys soon realize this job is going to require more manpower. No problem. They corral two friends: Eric (Jared Abrahamson), an intelligent but bored accounting major, and Chas (Blake Jenner), a fitness-enthusiast recruited for the role of designated getaway driver.
Warren does his research, if you could call it that, via unsubtle google searches such as, “How to burglarize a bank.” He carefully examines heist films, such as Stanley Kubrick’s classic, The Killing (1956). Though the movie vividly illustrates how many things can go wrong during a big-payoff theft, he’s not deterred in the slightest. He mines Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) for tips on proper robbery etiquette, lamely insisting everyone take the name of a color. Chas refuses to be called “Mr. Pink,” but that’s the least of their problems. Providing fake names to members of a criminal enterprise carried out by complete strangers makes sense when everyone is anonymous, in which case no one can flip and turn state’s evidence. These guys, however, have known each other for years; using a fake name is like going to a costume party disguised as yourself. Warren’s colleagues occasionally question his faulty logic and lack and reality-tested strategies, but he somehow always manages to squelch their doubts. If only they had persisted.
To recap: we’ve got four young guys with virtually no criminal history who decide to steal, among other things, John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” valued at $12 million and—the irony is almost painful—Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” first edition. I had to keep reminding myself of the opening graphic: “This is not based on a true story—this is a true story.”
Bart Layton has submitted for our consideration a bewildering, riveting movie that provides no easy answers.
American Animals opens at the Regal Santiam Stadium 11 on Friday, June 22.