There’s a fleeting shot in American Animals where Spencer and Warren, the two protagonists, are watching movies as inspiration for their imminent robbery. It’s a self-deprecating poke at the genre. Heist movies have become a Hollywood dime-a-dozen. The Inside Man. Point Break. Tower Heist. The Maiden Heist. The Hurricane Heist. Heist (2001). Heist (2015). You get the picture. The genre has become as original as its titles and as derivative as the newest Ocean’s movie. There’s the simple formula – find a prize, find a team, take the prize. Robbers are heroes and cops are dupes.
Bart Layton’s American Animals, however, has taken a seemingly saturated genre and turned it on its head. With innovative story structure and adept execution both in front and behind the camera, American Animals offers a heist that will settle you in for the ride and just as quickly question why you’re laughing.
The movie tells the true story of Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Lexington college students, who concoct a heist to steal a rare collection of books on display at the Transylvania University Library. Enlisting two other friends, Eric Borsuk (Jared Abramson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), the four of them hatch one of the most audacious art heists in US history.
The movie plays as much a con on the audience as the characters attempt in the story. With the ingenious and light-humoured injection of interviews from the real-life team of robbers, Layton lulls the viewer into an absurdist romp that is destined for failure right from the start. The movie seems not to be about whether or not they will succeed but how spectacularly they will fail. A tone-perfect performance from Peters leads us down a merry course of offbeat humour and incredulous farce. The movie moves like a breeze. At no moment is there a question of why these four teenagers think they can make a multi-million dollar heist of rare books, sell them and keep the money without ever getting caught. There’s a feeling that, “hey-ho, they’ll give it a good old go,” but when all fails life will go on as normal.
Layton offers just enough foreboding that all cannot be as it seems; our protagonists are too brash and too stubborn for suburban life to resume. There’s a sense that, amidst the comedy, something doesn’t quite sit right. A looming air is waiting to suffocate the screen. And when it happens, well, the wind falls out of the laughter. Whim comes at a price, and our American Animals suffer deeply for it.
For all its quality direction and performance, American Animals is a lesson in toxic masculinity and male privilege. It is a story of how four young men, wrapped in the comforts of suburban life and family stability, feel empowered to commit a gluttonous act. Their actions are self-indulgent and piggish; it is a reach for the excess when they already have so much. In the midst of the fleeting absurdity and the light-humoured camaraderie, these young men believe the world is there’s for the taking.
When the gravity of the actions by the four robbers finally hits home, Layton does a wonderful job at handling the change in tone. These are not just characters on a screen, no longer actors caught in absurdist humour. We see the real perpetrators, laid bare in their interviews, and the wider world that has been shaken by their narcissism.
So often movies never last long enough for punishment to catch up with the perpetrator. Through Layton’s innovative story structure, we’re given the rare opportunity to see four young men go into flight, rise high near the sun and fall like Icarus. It’s funny. It’s absurd and ultimately incredibly sad.