Fear of mediocrity is what drives the action in American Animals, the new documentary/crime caper hybrid from writer and director Bart Layton (Imposter). Crucially, the four young men at the core of the story don’t need to commit the crime they set their hands to – they just want to, because their current quite comfortable lives don’t exactly jibe with the luxury and adventure to which they feel entitled. That’s a pretty terrible reason for resolving to rob the library at Transylvania University in Kentucky of a number of rare and valuable books, including a first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, but awful choices can certainly make for awfully compelling cinema.
As in Imposter, which told the remarkable true story of a French conman who successfully impersonated a missing Texan teen, American Animals blurs the lines between factual and fictional filmmaking. The four co-conspirators are played by actors for most of the action – Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson – but the actual perpetrators are present as interview subjects, commenting on the action and occasionally providing an ironic counterpoint to what the film presents as the “true” events.
That’s only one metatextual conceit of many. The four youths, steeped in pop culture, see their crime as a Soderbergh-esque caper, or at worst a bloodless Tarantino riff. The reality is much more traumatic, of course, but these are laughably inept crooks we’ve got here, who begin their campaign by Googling “How to plan a heist” and proceed to pile misconception upon ignorance as events unfold, at one point making an abortive attempt to lift their prize disguised as old men. The tension comes not from wondering if things will go wrong, but when – in the context of the story we know these guys are doomed to failure, we just don’t know exactly how or how much collateral damage they’ll do in the process.
Yet while the known facts of the case are a matter of record, the precise truth of what happened remains elusive, thanks to contradictory interview answers from the actual participants. Warren Lipka (played in the reenactment scenes by Evan Peters) comes across as a particularly slippery customer, the film heavily implying that he engineered the whole scheme for his own amusement. Lipka himself denies this, of course, and we’re left to make up our own minds about him and his motives. There’s more than a hint of empty nihilism here, and at one point Lipka seems shocked at his own lack of remorse. This fascination with the hollowness at the core of its characters is what elevates American Animals above the run of the mill, resulting in a film that is hilarious and engaging, but more than a little disturbing, too.