What an opening. Tense shots of a robbery getting prepped with exacting precision are cut together with menacing images of bird paintings and documentary testimony surrounding an impending event. That impending event is the robbery of rare and expensive art books from the Transylvania University Library in Lexington, Kentucky that was perpetrated by 4 young college students in 2004. American Animals then continues to remain gripping as it interweaves documentary interviews from the participants of the crime with the narrative retelling of the events. Once I realized it was Bart Layton that directed this, it just clicked. One of my favorite documentaries of the decade was Layton’s last film in 2012, The Imposter. Aside from having an ending that shook me and made me nauseous, Layton also showed an adept hand at how to effectively use dramatic reenactment to enhance the tension and drama of the story. He delves further into dramatic reenactment with American Animals, and while it doesn’t quite rise to the heights that the opening has, it’s no doubt a grippingly executed film.
Not many filmmakers have successfully made the transition from making documentary films to narrative films, and vice versa. There’s a reason why only the greats come to mind – Herzog and Scorsese – it’s incredibly hard to do. It just feels weird in ways I can’t explain when Errol Morris (no disrespect) is directing actors, it’s almost obviously unnatural. So I have sympathy for Layton having some stumbles in his first effort in making the leap. Layton shows he’s capable of handling a cast, as the four young men each do well. Barry Keoghan, who I bought a bunch of stock in after last year’s performances in Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, continues to see his value rise. Jared Abrahamson is an actor I’m not familiar with, but I’ll be keeping tabs on him after this. Evan Peters only has one gear – “Look at how whacky I am!” – but he’s subdued enough to keep him from overtaking the film. I’m still not convinced Blake Jenner can actually act, but thankfully he’s not given too much to try to do here except be a handsome fit young man.
A part of me wondered if it would have been better as a whole documentary, the biggest moments of emotion and tension in the film come from the interviews with the real life criminals. The film is at its absolute transcendent best when it relies on the interplay between documentary and narrative storytelling. There are sequences where the interviewees contradict each other, so the narrative follows suit and shows both points of view happening. At certain points, the real life criminals come in touch with their actors on screen in particularly effective moments. Essentially, the film works best when it’s a documentary with narrative elements rather than a narrative film with documentary elements – or at least when it strikes this successful balance of the two. The film has a rough time being two hours long, you begin to wonder what they could have cut to have kept the film from getting sluggish.
I don’t want this to sound as if I disliked the film, I actually really liked it, there are just elements that almost frustratingly hold it back from going another level. But at the level it’s at, it’s still a fascinating film made with ambition. The film strides this tight line of humanizing what they did without glorifying any of it – they did some terrible things to people. Layton is very good at this, in The Imposter he really played with your sense of empathy with how he shot the central character. One of the most interesting things about it is that you’re never quite sure why these guys did the robbery, and you feel that to this day they are haunted by the fact that maybe they don’t know why they did it either. There’s an element of dissolution to their worldviews, that nothing exciting is going to happen to their lives on its own, they have to manufacture it themselves. It’s not too difficult to relate to feeling monotonous, and the need for something dramatic to shake yourself out of it. Hopefully I’m communicating that this film is very interesting, but at the end of it I just wanted to see more of the documentary footage.