When movie heists go wrong

True-crime documentary/fiction hybrid American Animals depicts one of the most awkward robberies in cinematic history.

American Animals

In the model of I, Tonya, American Animals puts into question the nature of truth through a true-crime narrative. Blending real-life documentary interviews and recreations, the 2004 library heist in Lexington, Kentucky, comes to life in a vibrant pop-art pastiche about leaving your mark on the world.

Assembling a ridiculously good cast, including two of the best working actors today, Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan, most of the film centres on the friendship and co-dependency of the best friends who decide to rob some rare bird books as a lark. These two university students always imagined themselves as living adventurous, unique lives, and faced with the monotony of their existence in Kentucky, they imagine the possibility of doing something extraordinary. While the money is certainly a huge draw for them, ultimately their quest is hyper-focused on the need to be special and to accomplish something incredible.

While the film does go through painstaking efforts to portray these central characters as unreliable narrators, it often loses its way running after other thematic ideas. Even as their fantasy of the perfect heist, pasted together from watching movies like The Killing and Reservoir Dogs, falls apart to reveal the crude and unhappy reality, American Animals ends up balancing too many textual and narrative elements to come together cohesively. Running over two hours, the film ends up feeling rather bloated in the second half, as we move away from the original thesis on the unreliability of memoir and the power of fiction. While in the final minutes we return to this idea, the narrative has run so far off course that it holds little power.

Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is failing to articulate our takeaway on what it has to say about the characters or even America itself (the film insinuates itself as a commentary on the nature of America from its title to its general framing). The film drives hard to the point that the boys were raised to believe they were special. Is this meant to be a reflection on the flawed individualist ethos of American life? A more pointed commentary on Gen-Xers and millennials? Or is this merely a process of growing up, a moment of transition when you realize you are not the centre of the universe and how some of us are able to accept that, while others can’t.

American Animals is overall a frustrating experience, but it’s consistently entertaining. All the performances are engaging, including those of the real-life subjects who are blessed with natural charisma and meaningful insights into their actions. The film has a pop soundtrack that actually enlivens the film rather than feels like a fraudulent put-on and the music choices (including Leonard Cohen, Donovan and Elvis Presley) work remarkably well. An original musical score by Anne Nikitin (who also did music on The Imposter, also directed by Bart Layton) is cutting and vibrant, supporting the film’s precise editing, while also setting the tone.

The heist itself is remarkable for how dirty and unsuccessful it is. While it is run over obsessively beforehand by the group, it is clear that they did not, in fact, consider the reality of what they were jumping into, logistically or ethically. The extended sequence is dripping with sweat, rife with awkward screams and rushed whispers. Characters move with the clunky imprecision of an out of body experience, failing completely and utterly to maintain composure. It is poetically inept and ranks among the great heists in film history, if only for how raw and uncomfortable it is.

American Animals doesn’t quite hit the mark, but it still earns a lot of goodwill. It is a great transition from documentary to hybrid fiction for director Bart Layton and features a strong, likeable cast. For film buffs interested in true crime and the nature of reality, this film holds a lot of promise and will surely find a small but dedicated fanbase. ■

American Animals opens in theatres this Friday, June 22. Watch the trailer here: