We live, or so we are lead to believe, in a world of fake news. And, if the opening lines of Bart Layton’s American Animals, this year’s Sundance London’s Surprise Film, are anything to go by, it could be seeping into movies as well. We’re told that what we’re about to see isn’t based on a true story. And that it is.
You never really know for sure, although the basic story is a true one and the real life protagonists show up as themselves, as well as being portrayed by actors. The essentials are that four friends living Kentucky came up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the library at Transylvania University. It turned out to be one of the most audacious art heists in American history but, behind their apparent bravado, this particular gang of four could never really explain why they did it in the first place. Even seven years in prison didn’t clarify things.
The closest they come to an explanation is that they wanted to bring some excitement to their humdrum lives, to the extent that they see themselves as being in a movie. And, of course, now they are. Evan Peters plays gang leader Warren, Barry Keoghan is the artistic Spencer, Blake Jenner gym rat Chas and Jared Abrahamson is Eric, probably the brightest of the lot. But we also meet the real four, who comment on the action, contradict each other (memories can be so unreliable) and look for all the world like they’re in one of those late night real life crime shows. Their involvement reflects Layton’s pedigree: this is his first feature film, after a series of documentaries, and his skill in getting real people open up on camera pays dividends.
Inevitably, they research their impending job by watching heist movies. Ocean’s 11, Rififi, Reservoir Dogs – they’re all there. Warren gives each of them names echoing the Tarantino classic and the film contains more passing nods in its direction. The slicker version of the heist – and it’s as smooth as silk – makes them look like Ocean’s 4 and the whole thing is very much a riff on Rififi. But that flawless robbery is nothing but fantasy. The truth is that, when it comes to carrying out their plan, they are bungling idiots: their planning is scant, they panic at the slightest thing and they’re accident prone to say the least. Layton makes no attempt to disguise the fact that the gang are idiots or to glamorise what they’re doing and that honest approach makes the film unexpectedly refreshing.
Which makes the actual robbery something of a farce and their arrest by the FBI – it doesn’t take long, believe me! – inevitable. That’s no spoiler: it’s a matter of fact. But while both the fictionalised versions of the four and the men themselves find it difficult to explain their reasons, Layton leaves his masterstroke until the near the end. Those priceless books are guarded by a solitary librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd). She’s all that stands between them, the volumes and the money, and she ends up bound and gagged on the floor. From the outset, Eric maintains he wants nothing to do with “immobilising” her and all four of them feel guilty about the way they treated her. But Layton’s coup de grace is to introduce the real Betty Jean to the camera, with her no-nonsense take on what they did. For her, they were selfish, immature boys. And it’s hard to disagree with her.
The mix of documentary and fiction works up to a point and, although they never sit wholly comfortably together, it does make the film an interesting hybrid. Where it falls down is in the real story. The whole thing was a mess, a complete foul-up, so why the events have become so legendary is hard to pin down. Why is it worth a film of just a smidge under two hours? Maybe it’s because, at its heart, it’s a cautionary tale, one of bored teenagers who think they’re clever and aren’t, and who wanted the proverbial American Dream without having to make any effort on their part. Just like Betty Jean said.
American Animals was the Surprise Film at Sundance London 2018 and is released in the UK on Friday, 7 September.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Drama, Thriller, Crime | Cert: 15 | UK, 7 September (2018) | EFD Films | Dir. Bart Layton| Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson.