“…what sets Bart Layton’s film apart from the plethora of heist movies that have made it to the big screen over the years, is the brutal honesty with which it is told.” – Wayward Wolf.
Spencer Reinhard was an art student at a Kentucky University, and it was there that he would meet the guy that would profoundly change his life, Warren Lipka; a free-spirit, and all-round loose cannon.
Predictable college-related shenanigans aside, the pair shared a deep-seated need to make a name for themselves in life away from the binds of convention and conformity.
Whilst Lipka was a hot-headed, disruptive influence, prone to making bad decisions, this in many ways appealed greatly to the impressionable Reinhard, who, like many of the great artists that he so admired, felt, himself, compelled to a life of sufferance.
On viewing an assortment of prized rare books in their University’s library, first Warren and then with minimal persuasion, Spencer, decided to hatch a far-fetched plan to steal the aforementioned valuables in what they believed would be the perfect heist.
And having, soon after, persuaded an additional two friends to join them, the conspiring quartet then went about piecing together the constituent parts of what appeared on the surface at least to be a suspiciously straight forward job.
And American Animals is the fascinating and unfortunate tale of how all of these best laid plans unravelled, spectacularly.
Essentially a quasi-documentary of sorts, what sets Bart Layton’s film apart from the plethora of heist movies that have made it to the big screen over the years, is the brutal honesty with which it is told. By frequently (and strategically) interjecting the main body of the film with the real life recollections of the heist’s actual perpetrators, we are constantly reminded that this is, as the film makes very clear from the outset, a true story. Not just one based loosely upon real events.
Unfortunately for them, what becomes abundantly clear is that the scheming foursome possessed next to none of the guile, nous or cojones required to pull off what would ultimately prove to be a very ambitious plan indeed. Far too ambitious for four college freshmen, it goes without saying. And it’s this element of inevitable failure when combined with the surprisingly large amounts of empathy that one feels for these mis-guided characters, that makes Layton’s film an at times excruciatingly tense experience. This was, after all, a plan as idiotic in its inception, as it proved to be shambolic in its execution.
Some fine, nuanced performances from Evan Peters (Warren) and Barry Keoghan (Spencer) in particular, ensure that American Animals is both an engaging and impactful experience, but it’s the cut-aways to the heist’s real-life perpetrators that provide the real soul and emotional depth to this story.
Considering none of them are actors by trade, the ‘performances’ and emotions conveyed to the camera by the real Spencer, Warren, Chas and Eric are refreshingly unstilted, and remarkably genuine and heartfelt in their delivery. Clearly to re-live these life-changing events has forced each of them into a very painful place in their souls in which guilt and shame seem both abundant and unrelenting.
American Animals is a film that on one hand may well wag a finger of disapproval, but on balance, it remains surprisingly non-judgemental in its outlook. Perhaps the fact that four fools who, effectively hung by their own petard, chose then to lay bare their crimes, on camera, to the wider world, is considered to be judgement enough.
And that’s probably fair enough.
Instead, Layton’s film offers out an olive branch and wraps a consoling arm around the wrong-doers, choosing to look forward to the future rather than to dwell on the unfortunate misdemeanours of the past.