We’ve all been there. You find yourself in your late teens or early twenties with a profound sense of existential malaise. You’ve been to school for most of your life and you could go to school for a bit longer, but why? What for? To prepare for a job that, at best, bores you if it doesn’t outright depress the hell out of you? To lead a life of quiet desperation? Some try to escape by means of alcohol, drugs or sex, but not you. Oh, no.
Instead, you do you. You try to give your life a sense of meaning by organising an insane art heist with the aim of stealing the ultra-rare books on display at your university’s library. It’s obvious if you think about it.
American Animals (2018) by the English filmmaker Bart Layton, is a strange beast. It is partly a crime drama based on the actual case of four young men who tried to steal John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and other rare books from the collection at Transylvania University (that’s Transylvania, Kentucky, not the one with wolves, vampires and somesuch), but it is also a documentary featuring straight-to-camera interviews with the older real selves of the characters we’re watching. More importantly, it blurs the lines between those two modes, drama and documentary, in ways that recall Layton’s earlier film The Imposter (2012) about the French con man Frédéric Bourdin, himself a man with a tenuous relationship to truth.
The result is an entertaining, playful if showy story about the art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and the two accomplices they find for their harebrained scheme, Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), who is responsible for the logistics of the robbery, and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), the getaway driver. We also see, sometimes even in the same scene, their real-life selves, giving their acted younger versions looks that sometimes practically spell out, “What the hell were you thinking?” Meanwhile, the young men plan their heist on the basis on which so many young men base their identities: the movies they’re watching, in this case the likes of Ocean’s 11, Rififi and The Italian Job. Whoever said that movies can’t be educational? Layton even stages a stylishly choreographed version of how Lipka imagines the heist, suggesting that the protagonists are approaching their endeavour much as if they were trying to be George Clooney or Michael Caine as the rakish heroes of a jazzy crime caper.
The reality, the four find out, is very different. They are no Danny Ocean, no Charlie Croker. They are barely more than children. Tasing the librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (played, in the dramatised sequences, by Ann Dowd), is not the suave dance move and swoon that Lipka imagines. Facing a screaming, sobbing actual person who wets herself in fear for her life isn’t what they’d bargained with, and it certainly isn’t what the movies had led them to expect. Some of the actual robbery is played for humour, such as when Lipka and Reinhard find themselves having to drag the Audubon books – two tomes roughly a metre in height – through a library filled with students studying for exams, but mostly the excitement of anticipating the heist is drained from the film, giving way to a mounting atmosphere of dread as things go wrong, stupid mistakes are made and Reinhard especially comes to understand that he has made the mistake of a lifetime in trying to rekindle a sense of purpose in that life. Within days, the four men are practically willing the police to pick them up, by getting into accidents and fights and committing stupid little crimes, so that they can get it over with. The heist was meant to be the glamorous dream of an exciting life. The reality, as Layton presents it, is more of a nightmare – and when the FBI finally arrests the four, it comes as a relief. They are tried and each receives a sentence of seven years. Several years older and wiser, Reinhard, Lipka, Borsuk and Allen all seem to have been given a second chance, they are all able to look at their younger selves and see them for the idiots they were.
So far, so neat – but the film does something interesting: it gives the last word to Betty Jean Gooch, and she is not willing to let the four men off the hook. The elderly woman, looking considerably less frail than Ann Dowd portraying her, is firm in her judgment: “I find them all very selfish.” The moment is striking because it makes us look at Layton’s portrayal the four, and especially of Lipka, as likeable if misguided protagonists. It was fun to hang out with the wannabe art thieves, but for Gooch their actions weren’t fun, they weren’t amusing. Gooch was assaulted and she feared for her life. Do the four feel sorry, and did they feel sorry at the time? Layton’s ending asks not whether they are but whether this sentiment matters all that much.
Unfortunately Layton’s ending points to the main failing of his film. It’s a strong idea: to startle the audience into reassessing its perspective on what they’ve seen. It’s also an underdeveloped idea, as a minute of footage of a character we’ve only seen in reenactment is unlikely to shake the impressions we’ve formed over the previous two hours. In general, Layton has a great line of intriguing ideas that are hinted at but never developed. At times, American Animals asks where facts end and fiction begins. It muses about the ontological status of the documentary and wiggles its eyebrows meaningfully, but then it moves on. It juxtaposes the protagonists’ snazzy imagination and the bleaker reality, but only for a minute or two. It puts Reinhard and Lipka and the actors playing them in the same scene, looking at each other – but other than startling the audience, the film doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of why it is doing so. As a drama, American Animals is likeable but a bit underdeveloped; as a documentary it is flimsy. By smooshing the two up against each other, Layton energises the film, but his tricks rarely do more than entertain.
I don’t need films – whether they are drama or documentary – to be educational. I don’t need them to spell everything out. But just asking the questions and then moving on is lazy filmmaking. Layton’s film is glossy, but it reminds me of the scene where Reinhard, Lipka & Co watch classic heist flicks in order to find out how to do their own heist. They may be getting ideas and information from those movies, but they don’t learn anything. American Animals is undoubtedly enjoyable while it lasts, but after the fact I can’t shake the impression that its individual parts fall apart. Its best, most interesting thoughts remain just that, thoughts, briefly raised and then forgotten, as Layton gets distracted by the fun he’s having with his characters. There’s a good film hiding inside this fun movie – in fact, there are several good films hinted at, but Layton doesn’t seem to have the stamina or the interest to find any one of them and fully develop it.