Sundance 2018: ‘American Animals’ is a Wild Ride of Truth and Fiction

Bart Layton expertly explores truth claims in this work of “hybrid-fiction.”
American Animals X
By  · Published on January 25th, 2018

Bart Layton expertly explores truth claims in this work of ‘hybrid-fiction.’

In the opening of Bart Layton’s American Animals, a title card reads, “This is not based on a true story.” The middle part of that sentence then fades, now reading, “This is a true story.” So, which is it…or does it even matter? At the heart of American Animals lies a truth. This truth is one that is complicated, having been corrupted by honesty, memory, and ego. Nevertheless, Layton sets out to unfold the narrative in which the truth may in fact be irrelevant.

Layton’s previous film was the 2012 documentary The Imposter. That film was celebrated for its use of highly polished and cinematic reenactments. The film did have its detractors, who criticized it as corrupting the truth through those very scenes. Regardless of the level of manipulation at play, The Imposter shows that the divide between fiction and nonfiction storytelling is not as wide as most would imagine. In his latest film, Layton examines this divide once again, yet this time approaching it from the other side.

American Animals opens in rather unremarkable fashion for a heist film. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is touring Kentucky’s Transylvania University when something on the tour of the campus library catches his eye. The Special Collections Library holds extremely rare — and extremely valuable — first printings of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” Spencer mentions these to his best friend Warren (Evan Peters), who immediately begins to create a plan to steal the rare books and make millions. The two enlist the help of Chas (Blake Jenner) to drive the getaway van and math wiz Eric (Jared Abrahamson) to craft the perfectly timed plan. Their largest obstacle: staunch library B.J. Gooch (a perfect Ann Dowd).

Conventional in its initial approach, the format soon changes. As the dramatic narrative plays out, the film begins to cut to Errol Morris-style talking head interviews. The subjects in these interviews are initially teachers and parents of the four boys. Things get more interesting when the subjects of the interviews become the boys themselves, yet not as played by the narrative’s actors. The Spencer, Warren, Chas, and Evan interviewed do not share the looks of Hollywood actors, instead appearing as normal, blue-collared Americans. It is jarring, because this is supposed to be a fiction film…right?

With the opening’s claim that the film presents both a fictional and true story, I found myself wondering just what exactly Layton is doing here. Did the events of American Animals actually happen and these interviews are with the real men who planned the heist? Or is Layton simply making a mockumentary film with fake interviews with the fake subjects? After all, the feature is screening in the US Dramatic Competition and not in the documentary program, where The Imposter played.

The answer to my questions were finally revealed at the very end, but taking the journey while not knowing makes American Animals a most rewarding experience. So I won’t spoil it. Regardless of their authenticity, the reenactments are done with a sort of parodic tongue-in-cheek humor. Layton seems to be addressing the contrivances of interview footage in many true crime documentaries. The subjects “act” with great exaggeration, throwing in added enthusiasm with each dramatic statement or seemingly profound generalization. These moments will amuse anyone who has binged his or her share of Netflix’s true crime series.

American Animals is a paradoxical mystery of goods. It entertains with an exploration of greed and simple stupidity, yet it also presents large questions about existence and the human need to be recognized. Layton draws on his previous documentary experience to make a film that delightfully examines the validity of truth claims and the unreliable nature of storytelling to begin with. It’s a wild ride that shakes up a common narrative by way of a refreshingly multifaceted approach. It’s about time someone made a heist film like this.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.