After nearly six years without working on a theatrical production, director of 2012’s award winning documentary The Imposter Burt Layton tackles a film based on a 2004 robbery, and adds a certain level of flair and creativity to stand out amongst a dying genre.

In 2004, four college-age men attempted a misguided (and very stupid) heist of rare pieces of history— including John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” as well as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, worth approximately $12 million from the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. What would give four teenagers the gall to attempt a heist larger than life itself, with little to no way to be able to sense it? That’s what makes the story of the 2004 robbery so enticing and perfect for a screenplay, its not so much of what happened but rather why did it happen, and what made them think it was a good idea to dress up as old men?

It almost seems as if Burt Layton was created to direct American Animals. With his affinity for depicting screenplays as if they were gritty documentaries, Layton’s filmmaking feels more personal and hyper-realistic compared to his contemporaries. Layton’s crown jewel The Imposter, taught him the skills necessary to direct American Animals by balancing the tension between truth and fiction. Where Layton takes liberties in his story is a sacrifice in order to flesh out his characters and for an artistic purpose, rather than solely for sensationalizing and “Hollywoodizing” the 2004 Kentucky Robbery.

A main indicator of this was when the words “This is not a true story” appear on-screen at the start, only to have the “not” disappear, differentiating itself as one of a kind, carrying a stylization that “Based on A True Story” films never carry. Layton casts the four teenagers perfectly in order to create larger than life characters.

American Animals is based on interviews with the perpetrators: Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, whose often contradictory accounts of their crime are used as the narrative that the filmmaker follow while being used as a guiding tool in order to create reenactments from A-Z, even as they call them into question. Layton plays jump rope of the fine line of memory and truth in ways that make you question the legitimacy of Spencer and Warren, that few other directors would have the guts to do.  At times, the four men briefly appear alongside the actors who portray them in some of the most creative parts of the film ( Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner).This dynamic between the real and the imagined characters heightens the quality and degree of difficulty in execution, thus giving the action and tension a breath of realism that most “Based on A True Story” films sorely lack. Director Burt Layton’s ability to break the documentary-esque story in order to provide a cinematic experience rather than a tell-all interview  is something that is unheard of in film.

American Animals escapes the shadow of bigger, more expensive heist movies by recognizing where the strength of the production lies–  a powerful script and self recognition. The film carries a slow pace, focusing on character and plot development and when the third act rolls around,the action unfolds at breakneck speed thanks to writer/director Burt Layton’s timing and the stylization of director of photography Bratt Birkeland’s handheld camera.

American Animals switches things up from your typical heist film and lets the drama be the draw, with Oscar worthy performances from its primary protagonists. Evan Peters gives Warren a level of swagger and quirkiness that paints him as the charismatic leader of the group and  Keoghans performance as Spencer shines as the film’s heartbeat and emotional presence, portraying a lost artist who needs to fulfill a certain level of emptiness. Layton makes sure to emphasize through the  opportunistic vessels that are his actors that this grand idea becomes a fantasy going awry, rather than an outlet for financial gain.

The film at first viewing may seem like a flawless experience, as the technical precision of the filmmakers will make you believe so, but the underlying message of the film may be a bit dangerous.

The film also splices the retelling of the story with interviews with their parents and glimpses of their noncriminal pursuits emphasize that these don’t fit the bill as criminals. What that means is that these white, middle to high class men are immediately given the benefit of the doubt other races or financial classes wouldn’t even dream of receiving when committing a felony robbery. When our “protagonists” are shown their cruel, selfish, violent and often stupid sides, it feels as if the film strays away from penalizing them. American Animals shies away from the kind of objectivity that would challenge the viewers to think about what this story might mean and it knocks the rewatch-ability factor of the film a few notches.

Layton’s direction elevates American Animals from a good film, to one of the most unique films in recent memory. Deciding to be more than a docile house cat that is a paint by numbers heist film, for more of a saber-tooth tiger for it  it’s genre that seemingly lacked smart editing,powerful storytelling, a meaningful score, and an understanding of how to control the tempo of a cinematic experience.

Grade: A

Ananth Para
paramana@mcmaster.ca

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