American Animals mixes documentary and dramatization to fascinating—if imperfect—effect
While the true crime documentary has been around for a while, it has seen a boon in popularity as of late. With Netflix leading the charge with docuseries like Making a Murderer and the recently released Evil Genius, the streaming era has made viewers hungry for more wild tales of real life criminals. Capitalizing on that trend is American Animals, a peculiar examination of an audacious art heist carried out by four foolish college boys in 2004.
Mixing dramatization with interviews of the actual robbers, the film follows best friends Warren (an at the top of his game Evan Peters, American Horror Story) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) as they formulate a plan to steal rare art books housed in the special collections room at Transylvania University, where Spencer attends. The plan seems easy enough, with only one librarian guarding the room (Ann Dowd, The Handmaid's Tale), and a lack of people in the library due to finals. They enlist friends Eric (Jared Abrahamson, Hello Destroyer) and Chas (Blake Jenner, Glee) as the "brains" and the getaway driver, respectively, and they're off to the races. Little do they know that the heist isn't nearly as simple as it seems, and their brash decisions will set off a chain of decisions that will forever impact those involved.
What makes the film stand out is its ability to juxtapose the reenactment of events with the talking head interviews it conducts in a way that blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction. The ridiculousness of the events gives this narrative strategy a lot of leeway, allowing writer-director Bart Layton to play fast and loose with the structure. It doesn't seem out of place or corny when Peters sits in the car with the real Warren and asks him if this is how he remembers what happened. It feels appropriate and oddly even natural.
The problem with crafting the film in this way is that its difficult to ascertain what it's really trying to say. It seems to be leaning towards a critique of the macho philosophizing that Fight Club took on nearly two decades ago, and indeed we see Peters's Warren rant against the corporate system and the real life Spencer explain his younger self was an artist who needed excitement (and pain) to make his creations feel genuine. This misguided masculinity seems to be the primary target of the film, but when you place the apparent guilt and regret of the real people involved next to the caricatures the actors are putting on screen it feels like the message is sabotaging itself. It's difficult to absorb and fully accept a fanciful critique of a Tyler Durden type when the more complex and real, human Tyler Durden type is staring into the camera in the next shot.
Therein lies the rub of American Animals; it's a well-crafted, well-acted recreation complicated by its own ambitious structure. The film wants to be too many things: a documentary, a comedy, a heist film, and even in the recreation of the final robbery, a horror film. The lack of a direct message isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's hard to wash out the bad taste in your mouth when you find yourself asking why we are giving these privileged ne'er-do-wells any attention at all. The drama wants us to sneer at them. The documentary wants us to pity them. Reality doesn't present such easy answers.