By Todd McCarthy
One of the most esoteric and far-fetched crimes in 21st century annals is recounted in dazzling fashion in American Animals. Borrowing from the best but, at the same time, forging a bold style all his own, British filmmaker Bart Layton, known for his highly successful, U.S.-set 2012 documentary The Imposter, again turns to the history of bizarre American crimes to relate a story that would be hard to invent. While bowing to modern stalwarts of the genre like Michael Mann, Oliver Stone and, above all, Quentin Tarantino, Layton employs the contents of his own large bag of tricks to tell a tale both engrossing and grotesque. This is an indie that could go places.
Layton impudently signals from the outset that he's not playing the game by the conventional rules when alternating titles announce that "This Is" and "This Is Not Based on a True Story." Striking opening moments devoted to illustrations of birds of prey and young guys disguising themselves to look older further suggest something unusual is in the works.
And so it is, as the film charges out of the gate in 2003 to expose the roots of a heist unusual both by its very nature and by the characters and motives that lay behind it. Best buds Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) have remained in hometown Lexington, Kentucky, to attend Transylvania University. They seem both bright and restless, unsure what they want to do with their lives but certainly equipped with enough smarts and advantages to make a go at whatever they might choose to pursue.
One of the prides of the school is the special collections library, which notably includes original editions of John James Audubon's extraordinary Birds of America as well as a unique Darwin volume. For no particular reason, it dawns on the boys that it probably wouldn't be too difficult to steal these books from under the nose of the archive's librarian (Ann Dowd) and make a small fortune from their sale.
These amateur would-be criminals hatch their plan, deciding they need to recruit two accomplices and soon find them in fellow students Chas (Blake Jenner) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson). They then work out the logistics, which don't look too daunting. Indeed, for professional criminals, the minimally guarded archive would likely not pose much of a challenge at all, if they would ever think to bother with it.
The basic story is bizarre enough to arrest one's interest from the outset — well-off kids deciding to become criminals out of no pressing need — but Layton shrewdly adds another layer by gradually introducing present-day on-camera commentary from the actual foursome who schemed to pull off the heist. Perhaps it took a documentary filmmaker to cook up such a dual-perspective narrative. In the event, the device adds a great deal to the film's impact, as the distance of time provides a more thoughtful consideration of the men's youthful indiscretions as well as a rueful assessment that adds an almost absurdist comic edge to their increasingly amateurish behavior.
Layton displays an expert's hand at slowly turning up the heat on the band of amateurs as they try to hatch their plot. They go to New York and beyond to line up a fence (Udo Kier, in briefly), work out disguises, the ideal timing (during finals), their escape plan and so on. But there are also plenty of exigencies they fail to consider, and when you think back on the multitude of classic heist films through the ages (The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Rififi, Odds Against Tomorrow, GoodFellas, Reservoir Dogs, et al.), you realize how unprepared and out of their depth this foursome is.
Some of the boys realize this, or have last-minute misgivings for other reasons, but they go ahead, adorning themselves with gray hair and beards, donning heavy coats and hats and, in a sweat, invading the special collections library. But to be sure, what can go wrong does go wrong, and Layton smartly stages the extended robbery and getaway with a combination of visceral excitement, personal panic and absurdist slapstick.
At the same time, the inclusion of on-camera commentary from the real culprits, now 14 years removed from the crime, adds a perspective unique to the genre, endowing the film with a more mature view of youthful misdeeds — as well as forcing the viewer to ponder the question of why these relatively well-off and intelligent students would voluntarily brand themselves as criminals for the rest of their lives for no reason at all.
Both as a writer and director, Layton delivers the dramatic goods here with the skill of a pro at the top of his game while adding the rueful perspective of time's reassessment of youthful indiscretions; this has to rate among the most accomplished and fully realized big-screen debuts of recent times.
The young actors, the only immediately recognizable one being the off-beat-looking Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as the nominal lead among rough equals, deliver with bristling, edgy work. Craft contributions, notably the editing by Nick Fenton and Chris Gill and the score by Anne Nikitin, are aces.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: Raw Productions
Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier
Director: Bart Layton
Screenwriter: Bart Layton
Producers: Derrin Schlesinger, Katherine Butler, Dimitri Doganis, Mary Jane Skalski
Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, David Kosse, Sam Lavender, Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Toby Hill, Piers Vellacott, Tory Metzger, Darren M. Demetre
Director of photography: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Production designer: Scott Dougan
Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
Editors: Nick Fenton, Chris Gill
Music: Anne Nikitin
Casting: Avy Kaufman