At the beginning of American Animals, we see text that reads, THIS IS NOT BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Then the words NOT BASED ON disappear. Clever, I guess? The thing is, even with the crafty weaving in of interviews with the actual people from this story -- thereby making this a hybrid of fiction and documentary -- the "based on" element is unavoidable. Artistic license abounds, no matter how buried in the details it is.
That said, writer-director Bart Layton -- whose resume up to this point has indeed been nearly exclusively documentaries, mostly on television -- does a great job of acknowledging how unreliable memory itself can be. When Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and best friend Warren (Evan Peters) recall the same conversation in different locations, the setting of the dramatization shifts, from a party to inside a car. They both remember "it was cold." When a guy they meet in Central Park is remembered by one of them as wearing a blue scarf and the other remembers it differently, the color changes.
Telling the story this way does give it an unusual level of authenticity, and Layton presents it in a way that heightens the tension. It should come as no surprise that an attempted heist of books so rare they are worth millions, kept in a Lexington college library, didn't go as planned. But it doesn't happen quite in a "Hollywood movie" way. Well, except maybe for the apparently requisite scene of a distressed character running to let off steam. In any case, real life is messy, which American Animals illustrates well.
That title, by the way, is a reference to the most notable book on display and primary target of the robbery, the a first edition of Birds of America by John James Audubon. I guess the producers decided calling the movie Birds of America wouldn't be catchy enough. We need the suggestion that these four college kids are animals.
They aren't quite, though. They're just dipshits. Spencer and Warren rope two more into their scheme: academic Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and jock Chas (Blake Jenner), when they realize they can't pull off this robbery on their own. Admittedly there came a point in this film where I wondered what the hook was supposed to be. Why isn't there more about what the hell they thought they were thinking? It's clear from the beginning that this isn't just some fun story about a group of guys who committed a major, if unique, crime. Because they didn't get away with it. This is a story that needs gravitas.
To Bart Layton's credit, in the end, he comes around to it. These guys suffered real consequences that severely affected many lives -- not least of which was that of the one librarian who worked the secure room housing the rare and valuable books worth millions. The young men had to -- or felt they had to -- incapacitate her, and being amateurs, they weren't very efficient at it. We also get a few minutes of interview with the real librarian Betty Jean Gooch, played by the wonderful Ann Dowd, the most well-known actor in the film. By the time she's offering some observations at the end, the seriousness of what these guys attempted is really sinking in.
And this is all by design, thanks to ingenious editing and a singular brand of storytelling. That is what sets American Animals apart. You don't have to drill down all that deep to find anything worth criticizing in this movie; it's not much of a surprise that the reviews are only slightly better than mixed, as it's not for everyone. The marketing presents it something a bit snappier than it really is, which is, ultimately, a bit heavy. It's a better final product as a result.
It's a fascinating thing, to see this story of four young men caught up in what they think of as the adventure of their lives, with the idea that it will make them all rich, told by their older selves a decade and a half later. American Animals packs a certain punch it could never have otherwise, with the real guys now struggling to reconcile their memories of infectious recklessness with midlife regrets.
Is the movie fun, then? Sort of. It bursts with tension and a bit of suspense. It's affecting, a little hard to shake, and you can't take your eyes off it.