‘AMERICAN ANIMALS’ director Bart Layton bites into true heist story with panache


Preston Barta // Features Editor

Heist movies promise their characters the ultimate shortcut to the American dream. They tell us if you put in a hard day’s work, you could be set for life. But then again, this is Hollywood talking. Reality is a different story. Reality is you forgetting to disarm the security system, forgetting to dust off your fingerprints from the vault or forgetting that personal item that gives your identity away. It’s those messy moments that make us human.

AMERICAN ANIMALS, on the other hand, captures the reality of its heist story with genuine style.

Like most heist movies, Bart Layton’s narrative debut follows the big job, from plan to execution and then on to aftermath. How Layton (director of the captivating 2012 documentary THE IMPOSTER) fills out the film’s running time between these three familiar story beats is what makes AMERICAN ANIMALS a groundbreaking entry of the genre.

The film centers on four young friends — Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) — who live an ordinary life in Kentucky as college students.

But like many of us who are chasing our dreams, they long for something more.

After a visit to Transylvania University, Lipka gets the idea they should steal the art history books from the library (valued around $12 million) and make history themselves. As they’re about to pull off one of the most daring art heists in U.S. history, they begin to wonder if they are too caught up in the fantasy and are about to make the biggest mistake of their lives.

Well, considering the film is a true story, you can probably guess how everything unfolds. But the journey is the most exciting, devastating and fascinating aspect of the film. Layton doesn’t simply dramatize the story. He brings a rawness and honesty to his portrayal.

Bart Layton attends the ‘AMERICAN ANIMALS’ Premiere 2018 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 9, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.

“It’s all very meticulously planned. It’s such an extraordinary story on its own that it didn’t need any level of fabrication or exaggeration,” Layton said on a recent phone call. “I wanted to constantly make audiences aware that this really happened and we’re not off in some movie world where consequences are nonexistent.”

To give AMERICAN ANIMALS its innovative feel, Layton brought the subjects of the film into the story as well. Seeing as how Layton comes from a documentary background, it’s only natural that he pulled from his own toolbox and found ways to push his creativity as a storyteller further. Reinhard, Lipka, Borsuk and Allen all lend their perspective to the story, and Layton splices in their testimonies with the actors who are playing them on screen.

“The whole idea with all those devices (not just the inclusion of the real guys) is that you’re emotionally engaged with the story and invested with the characters. You’d have to go a long way to find a heist movie that captured the true feeling of carrying out a robbery if you’re not cut out for it or a professional criminal,” Layton said.

Read Courtney Howard’s full review here.

Layton’s description could be applied to any true-story film. There is no war film that can capture the totality of war and there is no tear-jerking drama that can align with the true feelings of losing a loved one. But cinema is an art form, and how filmmakers choose to make their best attempt can make a great story also a great film. Layton’s infectious style (parallel editing, how he stitches his talking-head interviews together with the dramatizations, and camera movements) mirrors the anxiety of the characters.

“All of that is intended to invite the audience into the whole process. We’re aware that we’re dealing with unreliable narrators, but we’re also aware that memory is unreliable,” Layton said. “I had two of the guys describe one specific moment to me, but they both remembered it differently. So you could either choose one version over the other, because it’s easier to shoot and more economical, or you make a virtue of it. We can’t know exactly what the truth is, so let’s pull back the curtain and let the audience in on that.”

One moment in the film illustrates Layton’s words remarkably well. In the scene, Reinhard recalls the moment where he first told Lipka about the library’s contents. When Keoghan’s Reinhard dangles the idea of how easy it would be to take the items and decides to step away from the conversation to go inside a convenience store, Peters’ Lipka ignites with enthusiasm. Only he’s not alone in the dramatized sequence. Peters is accompanied by the real-life Lipka as he waits for Reinhard’s character to return to the car.

Peters’ character asks Lipka, “So this is how you remember [this moment happening]?” Lipka tells his character, “Not exactly. But if this is how [Reinhard] remembers it, let’s go with it.”

“Although the moment is not [Lipka’s] memory, it’s his friend’s memory and dramatization of that. We’re invited to connect in a slightly different way and hopefully it’s greater than the sum of its parts because of it,” Layton said.

There are so many cinematic jewels to unpack in Layton’s narrative, such as what it costs to be an artist. Reinhard perfectly articulates how an artist sometimes has to suffer and cannot simply just be good at drawing. Everyone learns at some point or another that greatness often comes from great failure and suffering.

AMERICAN ANIMALS is an intelligent heist movie that sees the genre in the next phase of its evolution.

AMERICAN ANIMALS opens in limited release on Friday, June 8.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.