The heist movie is a quintessential part of American cinema. “American Animals” puts a new spin on the genre as part-documentary/part-dramatization of a 2004 robbery involving four Kentucky college students who attempted to steal a group of priceless books from the Transylvania University library.
The film starts rather slowly, with a drawn-out and not exceptionally interesting preface. We do get to meet both the real-life men (now in their late 30s), who “narrate” the story in interview style, and their fictional counterparts. Throughout the film, the two principle characters, Spencer and Warren, challenge each other on the accuracy of their memories of what really happened 15 years earlier.
The techniques in “American Animals” are reminiscent of those in “I, Tonya”, in which the actors playing the characters talked directly to the camera and guided us through that story – consistently contradicting each other on how the actual events unfolded. And last year’s Netflix documentary “Casting JonBenet” – about a re-enactment of the events surrounding the JonBenet Ramsey case performed by the people who lived in her town at the time – also blended reality and fiction to create a unique experience.
Credit BAFTA-winning “American Animals” writer/director Bart Layton for trying to shake-up his storytelling. Some of the visual tricks Layton plays on us, in a very sincere way, are pretty slick and work well with the offbeat, unpredictable tone. But it takes until the final act before things really get cooking. These “Reservoir Dogs” wannabes put their plan in place and it’s no surprise when things don’t go as they (or we) expect. What follows is an intriguing look at the very human, dynamic and flawed minds of the four reluctant criminals, accompanied by honest reflections from their true selves.
“American Animals” has a lot going for it. However, relying almost entirely on the actual subjects to deliver the goods left me slightly unsatisfied. Still, this is the kind of film no one would dare attempt to make a decade ago. Layton is part of a rare group of contemporary filmmakers who appreciate the sophistication level of audiences and are not afraid to bend the rules and go beyond the boundaries of standard moviemaking.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “American Animals” gets a B-.
Running Time: 116 min.