Movies based on true stories are tricky to capture in a lasting way. The best tend to distance themselves from their basis and stand as their own pieces. For me, the more a movie presses “based on a true story” as its main marketing hook, the less confidence it shows in any other reason to see it. American Animals opens on the words “This is based on a true story.” Then, “based on” fades, leaving “This is a true story.” That’s the kind of ballsy opening usually reserved for found-footage horrors trying to trick tweens. But American Animals is serious and sincere about stepping as close to the unvarnished truth as it can.
Director: Bart Layton
Release Date: June 8, 2018 (Limited)
The true story in question is the 2004 robbery of millions of dollars in rare books from the Transylvania University’s special collections. Some of the rarest books in the world were stolen by four young men with no prior convictions or reasons to commit the crime. American Animals unexpectedly opens with real-life interviews with family members of the two main perpetrators, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), both espousing their disbelief for why their boys would do such a thing. The filming is pure docu-drama. All dimly lit living rooms, subjects speaking in quick bites with occasional bouts of emotion. It would fit in any HBO or Netflix true crime series, and this sets the emotional tone as the film moves into its scripted sequences.
The scripted pieces are strong. Very strong. They carry a palpable tension that drags through the guts. This is helped by the fact that Barry Keoghan is someone you feel sorry for as soon as you see him on screen. He carries this look of vague dismay and does a great job exposing the subtle feelings of a young man restlessly waiting on some life-changing moment. You can see the wheels moving behind his eyes and sense his emotion through mumbled and neutral lines.
Evan Peters is the polar opposite, freewheeling and gesticulating. He captures that chaotic excitement that makes impulsive and dangerous actions seem so appealing and cathartic. Their interplay creates this natural leader and follower dynamic where you’re never really sure who’s following who, and this is the easy highlight of the film.
But, just in case you were worried the docu-drama aspects of American Animals were only going to serve as an opening frame, sit tight. They return in full force to chop up the film and hamper its pacing. Peppered throughout are interviews with Lipka, Reinhard, and the two much less important perpetrators with headers announcing these are the “real” versions of themselves.
And that’s cool. It’s proof that, yeah, the crew talked to people to make the movie. These moments never earn their place in the film or divulge new details or themes that aren’t already present and mostly slow the narrative down.
The heist itself, complete with ridiculous old man disguises, changing plans, bungling, and violence, is simultaneously amusing and tense as hell. Every moment from the boys incapacitating the only librarian guarding the rare books onward triggers this frantic energy on screen that hurtles you along with the group as they watch every single part of their plan crumble and yet somehow manage to escape. It’s a true thrill ride, but the fact that American Animals is working so hard to make it feel real comes off a bit cheap. During the heist, the camera will cut to the faces of the real four as they sit in silent sadness, a sort of made-for-screen penance for their actions. No one says anything or adds additional details about the heist or makes conflicting statements concerning the operation. They offer no more than a reminder that they’re real, and they feel bad.The fallout covers about the same beats. While each of the actors get their paranoid sweaty-face closeups while having dinner, working out, shoplifting a frozen dinner, the dry-faced and totally put together real-life counterparts talk about how bad they feel about being criminals and how much they regret their actions. The FBI breaks into each of their houses to a sad acoustic song, text shows what everyone’s doing now, and credits roll. The movie loses its impact in the final minutes and just sort of slowly deflates.
American Animals is essentially two movies. We have the scripted film, which is tight and tense with stunning performances, and then we have the documentary, which is tepid and empty and can’t help but feel like a PSA to make sure any college students know that committing heists isn’t easy and is also bad and will get you in trouble. This is exactly the kind of story that you would read in the newspaper or hear about on the radio and think, “That would make a good movie.” And it is does. It’s a good movie. It just also goes out of its way to make sure it’s not anything more than that.