Bart Layton’s film about a real-life attempted rare-book robbery mixes dramatization and documentary with thrilling results
AMERICAN ANIMALS (Bart Layton). 117 minutes. Opens Friday (June 22). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Recounting the true story of a 2004 rare-book robbery at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, Bart Layton’s American Animals mixes dramatization and documentary into a hybrid heist movie, and the results are remarkable.
Layton – who made the terrific 2012 doc The Imposter – uses present-day testimony from the actual participants to illustrate (and complicate) his sharp, stylish thriller, which casts American Horror Story’s Evan Peters, Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan, Hello Destroyer’s Jared Abrahamson and Glee’s Blake Jenner as the would-be Reservoir Dogs.
Balancing the crew’s haplessness at planning and executing the crime with the real-world consequences of their opportunism, American Animals plays out as a hall-of-mirrors examination of responsibility and memory, both of which are aggravated by the heedlessness of these entitled college kids, who see themselves as the heroes of their own story when they’re clearly the villains of everyone else’s.
But he also pushes past the facade of frat-boy cool to show us the immature, entitled children underneath, who assume they’re about to live an Ocean’s movie and have no idea what they’re setting in motion.
Sure, it’s funny to see them bring home a stack of DVDs as “research,” and after a moment it’s also deeply disturbing: of course they think this is all it takes to do crimes, and of course they think they’re going to get away with this. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve gotten away with everything their whole privileged lives.