Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Writer-director Bart Layton has created docudramas that are entirely out-of-the-box in design. THE IMPOSTER made the hair on the backs of our necks stand on end. With AMERICAN ANIMALS, the filmmaker once again twists traditional techniques in order to meticulously craft his daring, bold vision, finding some version of the truth within a “based on a true story” tale. He shatters the brittle lines of cinematic convention, then pieces the jagged edges back together to form a decoupage of fiction and reality. While the high-concept aspects don’t always function perfectly, it certainly makes for a refreshing tool to engage audience interaction.
Prospective painting student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) has always felt he needed to experience something that would make him suffer for his art. His rebellious, charismatic bestie Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), who has built his brand on disrupting societal norms, feels a similar calling. So the duo hatch a daring scheme to steal the most valuable books in existence from the Library of Special Collections at Transylvania University, using movies for inspiration. If all goes according to plan, it would be the biggest art heist in history. As the pair methodically plot the crime, and their Blockbuster cards get a vigorous workout, it becomes abundantly clear they’ll need to persuade a few other friends to get involved. They rope in lonely Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) as their dependable numbers/ logistics expert and wealthy entrepreneur Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) as their driver. But as we all know, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
The first half of AMERICAN ANIMALS is impeccable, effortlessly blending the actors’ dramatization and documentary interviews with their real-life counterparts. Layton, along with editors Nick Fenton, Chris Gill and Julian Hart, infuses the narrative with an undeniably electric energy. It’s not all hard cuts back and forth between the two genre constructs. The camera movement that connects the interviews and the fictionalization is thoroughly eye-catching – specifically where and when they utilize side swipes, or smash cuts, or various other techniques. Occasionally, Layton will even place the real-life figures within the re-enactments to break boundaries. This doesn’t just emphasize the action of the sequences; it also helps to tangibly contextualize the characters’ narrative trajectories. Plus, the classic rock soundtrack is filled with deeper, less-on-the-nose cuts than are usually found in films of this ilk.
That said, the back half loses a lot of that ingenious momentum, falling into fairly predictable territory both narratively and stylistically. The tonal bandwidth stays on one note (a very serious one), and though it increases the volume, it doesn’t move the needle much from there. Despite staying true to themes of consequence, Layton’s attempt to bring even the faintest touch of humor to the proceedings doesn’t exactly work. His restraint and reticence to do so is noticeable – and the film feels a little poorer for it. The inherent comedy of the real life situation is undoubtedly there, especially when it’s clear these guys aren’t part of a well-oiled machine: They took their cues from the movies and didn’t think twice about how that’s not a good idea. They named themselves after characters in RESERVOIR DOGS – which they acknowledge was a failed heist. They dressed up in costumes and were hoisted by their own petard. Yet there’s no sense of absurdity to this audacious blueprint.
AMERICAN ANIMALS opens on June 1.