American Animals is an odd beast of a motion picture: it’s part dramatized action, part interviews with the real people depicted in the film. The results is a heist picture about these dumb kids in Kentucky who tried to steal some of the most valuable books in the world from the Transylvania University Library. It’s the first feature film from Bart Layton, who shook the documentary film world up with his debut The Imposter, a stunning piece of work.
Mixing documentary and dramatization is an old trick, used primarily in documentary filmmaking. It was most notably popularized by Errol Morris in his groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line. In 2017, Morris one-upped himself with the Netflix mini-series Wormwood, which, like American Animals, actually cast professional actors in the parts that were dramatized. I personally thought Morris did it in a more innovative fashion.
The core problem with American Animals is that despite good performances from the cast, primarily Evan Peters and Barry Koeghan, the film has an identity crisis. At points it wants to be a documentary, and at points want to be a fun, insane heist-gone-wrong film. Richard Linklater made a true crime dramedy, Bernie, back in 2011, and in some short scenes he interviewed the real townsfolk where the events happened. but it was done in a mockumentary style and they were not named. This made it easier to cut from real to portrayed seamlessly, which American Animals doesn’t manage to do. The interviews with the real culprits take you out of the action happening on screen, and feel like filler to make the film longer, given that the heist itself wasn’t very eventful.
Layton and whoever his music supervisor was picked songs that were just too on the nose, or already had a strong connection to another film, like Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and its chilling use of David Fincher’s Zodiac. There is literally a scene where they go to New York City and Ace Frehley’s cover of “New York Groove” is played—it’s just such an obvious choice, when you would hope they might have been more adventurous with the music. The intention may have been “what would these clowns have used to score their own heist movie?,” and if that was the case, it works to an extent… but more inventive musical cues would’ve been welcome. That being said, the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” is arresting at times, but also screams that the director just threw a song on his playlist into the film without necessarily thinking through it.
Despite these criticisms, it’s a fun heist film/documentary romp through the eyes of these boys who were raised on too much Adderall and Blockbuster rental nights. It had an initially mixed response in the states, but it got glowing reviews into the UK, and has since become a favourite of many critics in their end of year lists. I was somewhat disappointed in the end, but the film has enough going for it to recommend.
The feature includes interviews with cast and crew.