Half-documentary, half-crime-drama, American Animals is an innovative piece of work. Under Bart Layton’s precise direction, this challenging style heightens the moments of farcical comedy and adrenaline-pumping crime scenes whilst also adding gravitas to the real-life impact these events had on those actually involved. All in what could have very easily been a dull, by-the-numbers “based on a true story” film.
The narrative follows four American college students who attempt to steal millions of dollars’ worth of rare books guarded by one librarian from Transylvania University. Driven by the desire to do something with their lives, and to most importantly be something, they set off on this endeavour with sometimes only a mild belief that they will actually go through with it.
What is most surprising is that these characters don’t seem much like criminals at all and that their motivations for doing this are relatable – everybody wants to do something with their lives. This sense of relatability is further developed by the fact they’re not criminal masterminds, either. They get their education on how to pull off a heist from films and even use the same code names as in Reservoir Dogs. This also influences their perception of how the heist will go, with one sequence showing it going seamlessly in their imagination. But not everything happens as it does in the movies.
By far, American Animals’ crowning achievement is its quasi-documentary style. It helps the piece maintain a decent pace whilst also keeping out-of-place exposition down to a negligible amount. The film is at its best when it juggles the real-life interviews with the drama evenly and the end result is a product which, in its own words, “is a true story”. It’s a style that I hope more filmmakers adopt when attempting to accurately portray real events in the future.
What it creates is a real sense of gravity. Seeing the people who actually did these things coming to terms with it is an intriguing and visceral thing to behold. The best moment is seeing the real librarian, Betty Jean Gooch, who was “neutralised” during the heist, giving her own thoughts on the people who did this. She describes them as “selfish” and not having understood the impact they would have on those around them. And this impact is something which will hit you just as hard as it hits them during the course of the film.
American Animals is, quite simply, a brilliantly dynamic film. The way it handles vast tonal shifts, from the amusingly farcical to the disturbing disregard for other peoples wellbeing, simultaneously with the quasi-documentary style is something quite remarkable. The subject matter could have easily been mishandled, but fortunately the challenge it posed was treated with the delicacy and care that it demanded. I cannot recommend it enough.
Article written by Christopher Rej.