PARK CITY, Utah — When a filmmaker stumbles upon one of those wild, can-this-crazy-tale-friggin’-be-true crime stories, you can only imagine the storyteller’s dilemma. Do you reassemble the real-life players for a documentary recounting the events? Or do you dramatize them in a bells-and-whistles, adrenaline-pumping feature?
In what may have been the first of director Bart Layton’s fuck-it-all surrender to cinematic excess and a pyro-like burning of the filmmaking rulebook, you can imagine him snickering and raising a devious eyebrow: “Why not just do both?”
American Animals is that experiment—part dramatization, part documentary—and a thrilling, surprising one at that. As a crime-thriller, it’s suitably nerve-wracking and ludicrous, while somehow still poignant and thoughtful. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the market might be for the film, which is provocative enough for a prestige audience and packed with enough broad laughs and action set pieces to titillate the cheap seats. In other words, the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered last night, was the perfect fit for it.
In 2004, four students at Kentucky’s Transylvania University attempted one of the most audacious art heists in modern American history—and one of the most disastrously bungled. It was the delusional brain trust of friends Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen who, schooled on a library of Hollywood crime movies, truly believed they could pull it off.
They’re the epitome of the entitled listlessness that has haunted millennials at that time and since: the desire to manufacture a life-altering adventure in order to artificially generate some sort of identity and meaning because they can’t be bothered, or are too scared, to put the work in to discover any authentic one. As the planned robbery—of artifacts from their university library’s rare books collection—evolves into an actually feasible, hair-brained plan, the friends are revealed for what they really are: egotists who fancy themselves cowboys but who can’t even ride a horse.
The mostly true story evokes the structure of the current Oscar-contending Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya, cluing the audience in that these boys are unreliable narrators with different accounts of the truth, and going so far as to restage scenes multiple times based on each of the characters’ conflicting accounts of what happened.
But American Animals warps that I, Tonya narrative device by having the real-life Spencer, Warren, Eric, and Chas do the on-camera testimonials and tell the story in lieu of the quartet of actors (Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner) who play them.
It’s a move that just about knocked the Park City audience out of their seats at the screening we attended. It’s a gimmick, sure, but transcended being dismissed because of it thanks to how captivating the boys were—the real Warren gives Evan Peters, who played him, a run for his money in terms of screen presence— and how delicately Layton weaves their plain-spoken accounts into the fast-and-furious dramatization.
You’re repeatedly reminded that, while a bonkers movie with the kind of crowd-pleasing intensity and camp you want in a crime-thriller, these are people whose lives were changed forever by their reckless abandon; there were real-world consequences to their ripped-from-a-movie-set actions.
The result is a movie that’s like Ocean’s Eleven meets I, Tonya, with a dash of college-boy buffoonery and a sprinkle of Dateline seriousness.
And so we’re buckled up for dueling films.
There’s the one in which four bored college boys hatch a cockamamie plan to rob their school library, the audience hooting and hollering at their casing the scene, scoping out disguises, and orchestrating getaway cars in slick—albeit superficial—set pieces.
Then there’s the one in which the men who inspired those boys are now more than a decade older and have weathered the consequences of their actions, have perspective on why they might have done it and altered recollections of events and even justifications for their actions—the way versions of stories change and become our truths as time passes and we convince ourselves so.
It’s not that the two films never weave between each other. The boys in the dramatization still have consciences, second-guess what they’re doing, and become increasingly fearful about what might happen if it all goes wrong—especially as things literally do start to go wrong. It’s like watching four helpless sailors bail water from a sinking ship. And the older, real-life versions of the characters help amp up the tension through their testimonials by underlining how truly preposterous the whole idea was in the first place. When things begin to go to pot, they’re crucial reminders of how dramatic the stakes that we’re watching really were.
When those two missions are in sync, American Animals is a heart-pounding thriller given rare heft because of the documentary aspect. But too often, too, the film plays like a revved engine, whirring up to peak intensity only to fall back to neutral when the testimonial accounts kick in.
Prior to American Animals, Layton was primarily a documentary filmmaker whose best-known project is 2012’s The Imposter, about the bizarre French case in which a family welcomed back into their lives a son who had gone missing years earlier, only to learn later on that it’s not him—fittingly a story about how tenuous and subjective facts and the truth can be. That’s where American Animals becomes more than just a clever spin on a film adapted from a true story, but one that shades the genre from what audiences have come to suspect.
We’d like to think that we’ve moved beyond the point where we take the beats of films chronicling true stories as fact at face value. But at the same time, we’d probably be tempted to think that an adaptation that enlists the actual participants as storytellers would lend their version of the events more authority. American Animals suggests that even we’re beholden to ambiguity: whose version of the truth are we to believe?
Much like the film loses its way—eliciting a few eye-rolls at that—when it allows its characters to venture into philosophizing and profundity, we’re aware that in doing the same we’re skirting past the true draw of American Animals, which is its utterly insane heist story. Layton occasionally seeks to remind himself the same, making sure to wallpaper the film with visual cues and dialogue references to the craziest of Hollywood’s crime films, as if to say: sometimes the truth doesn’t matter and all you want is a damn good movie. American Animals is nearly—though not quite—there.