British writer/director Bart Layton makes his feature début with this reality-blurring depiction of actual events, and while his dedicated cast works hard to make the characters seem real, they’re never anything but unpleasant and staggeringly deluded.
Shooting to make weighty points about America, movies and the very nature of ‘reality’, American Animals is a story that you can’t believe ever happened. Layton keeps reminding us of the story’s unreliability and questioning the ‘facts’, as we, in turn, ask ourselves over and over how the people involved could have been so damn stupid.
In 2003 in Lexington, Kentucky we meet the slightly gormless Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), an art student who, with overage-teenie angst, feels that his life needs some grand, exciting event in order for him to create. He’s a bit of a twit really, and Layton immediately starts demonstrating his background in documentaries by also introducing us to the real Spencer, who comments upon what a fool he was and verifying some of the details of the film as we watch. But not all of them.
When Spencer meets Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a scarily unpredictable guy on an athletic scholarship, we not only see how these two young men dangerously click but also meet the real Warren. He appears calmer in the present-day, and Layton borrows tricks from films like American Splendor and 24 Hour Party People as, for example, the real Warren sits in a car with the movie Warren and the two have a quick conversation as to whether what we’re watching indeed happened quite like this.
After Spencer has a tour of the rare book collection at the Transylvania University library, as presided over by librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), he and Warren hit upon the crazy notion of robbing the place and seizing, in particular, a valuable edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds Of America. Warren even travels to Amsterdam to discuss selling the tomes for big money to some shady types (one of whom is played by cult star Udo Kier) – or does he?
The lads eventually team up with pals Erik Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), which means, of course, that the real Erik and Chas then pop up to talk about what idiots they were too. The gang also considers using disguises but soon drop the idea, as if thinking that no one will recognise them because that’s what would happen in a movie. But not this movie.
There’s no doubt that Layton’s narrative and production is seriously ambitious, even if we’ve seen the whole illusion/delusion-versus-reality clash over and over again, and there’s an eclectic soundtrack to push things along that includes Mos Def, Ice Cube and Rage Against The Machine alongside Donovan, Rodriguez, The Doors and Leonard Cohen.
However, we keep coming back to the niggling fact that Spencer, Warren and the boys are such nitwits, and pondering why Layton wanted to make a movie about them in the first place. Then, as a final kicker, it’s revealed at the very end that one of them dearly wants to be an actor, and you wonder if he’s going to list ‘Library Robber’ on his résumé.
Rated MA. American Animals is in cinemas from Thursday, October 4