Few documentary makers have a flair for cinematic storytelling quite like Bart Layton. His blistering debut, The Imposter, feels like a thriller despite being mostly a collection of talking head interviews. His follow-up, American Animals, feels like its mirror image: a larger-than-life heist movie that occasionally stops to remind the audience that no, really – this all happened.
Or did it? The film opens with the declaration that “this is not based on a true story”, and Layton has great fun in playing with the conflicting accounts of past events. We regularly cut to interviews with key players in the story, and details like the time of day, the clothes people are wearing and even the locations of scenes all shift on the fly as this or that subject interjects.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching the hapless young men bumble their way through typical heist preparation scenes, like the cast of American Pie remaking Ocean’s 11. Barry Keoghan, previously stoic and serious in Dunkirk, proves a natural deadpan comedian, while Evan Peters brings his trademark swagger in spades.
But there’s a queasy undercurrent to the whole proceedings. Early on, Keoghan’s character muses about spending his life “waiting for something to happen.” By the time the heist plays out in all its surprising unpleasantness (made unbearable by the legendary Ann Dowd), we’re left feeling thankful that he and his friends were content to channel their millennial malaise into a robbery and not a massacre.
Not everything about American Animals quite holds together: there’s a lot about the characters that’s left unexplored, and the denouement takes a little too long to reach its inevitable destination. But it’s a gripping heist movie with a surprising amount on its mind, and a film that feels tailor-made for our post-truth times.
CAST: Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner
DIRECTOR: Bart Layton
WRITER: Bart Layton
SYNOPSIS: Four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in US history.