If you only had blurbs to go on, you’re probably ready to give American Animals a pass. Dumb. Don’t do that. I’m pleased to report this is one of those great, funky-cheese flicks where the ad gurus just didn’t know what to do. It’s not a documentary quite, it’s not an “old guys knock over a bank” thing, and it’s not going to let you off the hook.
In Kentucky, in 2004, a couple college kids somehow ended up trying to steal a $12 million book from the school library. Like most heist movies, much of the two hours is taken up with the “how” questions of a robbery plot. But like most documentarians, writer-director Bart Layton seems at least as interested in the why of the thing. And he’s sewn it all up in a tight, ecstatically fun bundle that’s simultaneously familiar for what it borrows from the crime genre, and utterly novel for how it knits things together.
After a scene where Spencer (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer‘s Barry Keoghan) and Warren (X-Men rebootist Evan Peters) are watching Kubrick’s The Killing., the brown-blue-yellow palette jumps abruptly to full black-and-white to illustrate their immersion. Documentary interview snippets with the two real-life guys jump-cut suddenly back to their fictional avatars mid-sentence, the actors picking up the exact patter so accurately your ear isn’t quite sure if the audio track made the same cut from real men to fake boys. Tightly, slickly edited throughout by Nick Fenton, Chris Hill, and Julian Hart, American Animals somehow never leaves you confused, nor lets you relax for even a sentence.
The editors were given plenty to work with by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, who whips out every standard bit of cool-cat smoothery you’ve ever seen in a cops-n-robbers flick: A whip-pan from the library exterior to the side mirror of the car where Warren sits taking notes on shift changes, racking focus dizzyingly to make the shot cohere; a cryptic face gazing into middle-distance shot from outside the car, a reflection of skyline in focus and the eyes just fuzzing; a slow camera retreat upward from a meticulous planning sketch of the library and its staffers’ routines.
These are the cinematic tools that make crime sexy, much to the distress of various parents’ associations and former Vice President’s wives. Familiar though they are, they never feel stiff or tiresome as wielded here by the editing team.
So we have lively, spry filmmaking, and we have a heist story. A librarian might therefore be tempted to shelve it alongside Ocean’s 11 and Snatch and Baby Driver. But these aren’t Guy Ritchie’s manic, flashy tools or the Church of Cool stuff Soderbergh flexes or Edward Wright’s meticulous music-video choreography. The pace is just as tight as their entries, but American Animals would be mis-catalogued on that genre bookcase. Director Bart Layton borrows from the more muted techniques of a mixed-media artiste. This is collage, not glam. But it will make your heart race all the same. For genre aficianados with open eyes, it ends up pushing the heist flick forward, outward.
But American Animals is careful to hide its high brow under a low brim. The duo toke in a Volvo and suffer through frat hazings. It never flatters its real-life protagonists, even as it features them in on-screen interviews, carefully cut into and out of the “reenactment” scenes with professional actors. It doesn’t paint them as martyrs of the counterculture or misunderstood artistes, but leaves them as the dinguses they clearly were, just in a sympathetic, fundamentally kind fashion.
And by the time it’s all over, you’ll feel like you got a lot more out of it all than just a bouncing crime flick.