When four bored Kentucky college kids got together in 2004 to pull off a robbery, they set their sights higher than a bank or a corner store: they plotted to snatch from the local university a stash of valuable books, among them Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Audubon’s lavishly illustrated The Birds of America. One of the gang, Spencer Reinhard, was a budding artist concerned that life hadn’t thrown the sort of obstacles in his path necessary to forge and shape a distinctive talent. His mettle would most likely have remained untested were it not for the heist, traced from the planning stages through to its terrible aftermath in Bart Layton’s confident thriller American Animals.
Upside-down driving shots during the opening credits give a fair warning that Layton intends to flip convention on its head. This he does by alternating between interviews with the real-life subjects (all now in their thirties) and the actors who portray them as they were at the time of the crime. Any restaging is mediated by the memories of the participants, discrepancies and all. When Spencer recalls a pivotal discussion with his co-conspirator Warren, he remembers it taking place on a balcony, whereas Warren claims they were in a car. So the film switches back and forth between the two versions, with Movie Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Movie Warren (Evan Peters) relocating to the car when control of the narrative changes.
To confuse matters further, the real subjects occasionally break the art/life divide to mingle with the actors playing them. Movie Warren asks Real Warren a question about the veracity of a particular scene; on the drive to carry out the robbery, Movie Spencer gazes out of the window as Real Spencer watches him go past. The effect is unexpectedly poignant, casting the older, wiser Spencer as a Cassandra, cognisant of the horrors to come but powerless to intervene.
It’s not a new idea to throw the actual subjects in with the people portraying them – the cartoonist Harvey Pekar appeared alongside Paul Giamatti, the actor playing him, in the excellent American Splendor – but Layton’s film is built on unusually wobbly foundations. A second layer of unreality emerges when the gang members look to movies for inspiration. Warren dreams of the sun-kissed Mexican paradise at the end of The Shawshank Redemption but it takes Spencer to point out the lengthy prison sentence that precedes it. Recruiting the nervy Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and the sporty hunk Chas (Blake Jenner), the boys borrow the colour-coded names from Reservoir Dogs, not twigging that the reasoning behind that was to preserve anonymity.
They binge on heist films, and Warren even enters the screen to join the cast of The Killing. The world becomes indivisible from cinema, with a hand-cranked pencil sharpener imitating precisely the noise of the creaking metal sign in the tense opening showdown of Once Upon a Time in the West. A witness speaks later of the gang having “crossed the line” but the distinction between reality and fantasy was breached long before any crime was committed. With it went all thoughts of consequence and morality.
Layton’s first film, the documentary The Imposter, was both more straightforward and more bizarre, but it, too, revolved around a chasm that couldn’t be filled – in that case, the disappearance of a child. Here, the absence is internal – a spiritual and emotional void into which the characters can only peer dumbly. Social media has not yet intruded on their lives but it’s easy to see them as flag-bearers for the desensitised selfie culture, desperate merely to be seen. (Ironically, they wear old-man disguises for the heist because no one notices the elderly.)
American Animals manages to be simultaneously fast-paced and contemplative. Layton, who is British, has an eye for the eccentricities of Americana: an illuminated sign reads “Support Our Troops” and “All You Can Eat Turkey Tuesday”. And the staging of the heist itself could scarcely have been more suspenseful; one particular editing decision is worthy of Hitchcock’s Marnie. Rather wonderfully for a film that destabilises the idea of truth, all but one of the men have decided to go into storytelling since leaving prison; Warren wants to be a director, Chas has written a guide to prison exercise regimes and Erik is working on a memoir. The camera catches sight of the title page: it’s called American Animals.
This article appears in the 05 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left