In the next moment, the middle words are erased and we're left instead with the statement: "This is a true story."
That kind of tongue-in-cheek play on truth is what drives the first stranger than fiction film from long-time documentarian Bart Layton. The film plays like a mockumentary, with the main story interjected with interviews...until we realize that the interviews are done with the actual people that the story is about.
American Animals is the true tale about four well-to-do young men who plan a heist to steal some of the rarest and most valuable books from Transylvania University's library. Despite dreams of grandeur and hours of heist movie research, the plan only manages to expose their motivation to be somehow extraordinary.
Despite the presence of the real people, this is thankfully not The 15:17 to Paris a la Clint Eastwood. The younger versions of the men involved are played by a crew of extremely likable and talented actors including Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Evan Peters (the highlight of X-Men: Days of Future Past), Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some!!), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers). Some of the actors look and act remarkably like their counterparts, whereas other represent a radically different stage of life.
Each has life handed to them on a silver platter -- from Warren (Peters) who has a sports scholarship to Eric (Abrahamson) who is the stereotypical glazed expression student who is able to answer the most complicated challenges set on the board. And yet, in each there's a kernel of belief that there's something more that's meant for them -- which ends up being the impetus to the film. Unlike most heist movies, there's no real motivation such as a financial need driving these boys. And so despite what they dream up, it ends up being far less Reservoir Dogs and more Crime and Punishment. More than anything, it's the experience, the thrill of it, and the question of whether they can that drives them forward towards a line they're not actually ready to cross.
American Animals manages to be more than your cautionary heist tale though because of the form that Layton has juggled here. The sobering interviews he's managed to capture with the four men, now a decade past the deed, not only shed light on the motivations of the characters but also their complete lack of foresight. And the emotional catharsis that is felt is more akin to the documentary-like capture in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon than a scene that is meant to exonerate them of their own guilt. The film simple doesn't work if the honesty of it doesn't come across, or if the truthful sections smack of any cheap emotional fabrication. Fortunately, Layton avoids that.
The movie manages to start with a more naturalistic look before devolving into stylish Hollywoodland, paralleling the psyche of the boys who dream up a movie plotline, complete with an Ocean's 11-like sequence. It's clever in how it teases the storytelling, with one scene involving the real Warren and the fake Warren in a car together, questioning how it actually went down. The mix of diegetic and non-diegetic sound also heightens the drama and interplay between reality and what is staged.
A truly fresh take on what sounds like an urban legend, Layton's feature works because of his finesse in juggling the story but also because of the undeniable skill of the four actors playing the young men. Even if the best part of fiction is an unvarnished truth, it takes a keen eye to recreate it in all its nail-biting glory on screen, and kudos to Layton for plotting it out so acutely.
American Animals will receive a wide release June 1st.