Thousands of years ago, man hunted to stay alive. Now that survival is taken for granted, man hunts to feel alive. Bart Layton’s latest film examines how the more privileged our position, the more insatiable our appetites.
American Animals is based on the true story of four college students from Kentucky who went to incredible lengths to do something extraordinary. When Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) – an art major lacking inspiration – and his friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) – a wannabe revolutionary frittering away his sport scholarship – learn of a rare and valuable book collection held at the Transylvania University library, they enlist the sharp-minded Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and deep-pocketed Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) in order to attempt an incredibly ambitious heist.
But as in his previous BAFTA-winning, genre-bending documentary The Imposter, Layton doesn’t give us the story straight. This is a feature which toys with truth and skirts playfully around the edges of authenticity. Interspersed within an acutely self-aware narrative are documentary testimonials from the real men themselves. Far from taking us out of the story, the talking heads add another dimension to their characters. Retrospective accounts blend seamlessly into heavily dramatised, cinematic, beautifully shot reenactments. The fiction alters according to the facts. Or is it the other way around?
Sitting somewhere between true-crime documentary, caper and coming-of-age tale, the film is wonderfully – and unexpectedly – fun. The naive vulnerability of the characters is at once endearing and enthralling: their contradictory stories are cut together with perfect comic timing and an expertly observed pastiche sequence plays out the operation according to the boy’s movie-like fantasies. All the elements are there: the charismatic ringleader, the logistics guy, the lookout, the getaway driver. The only problem? This isn’t Snatch or Ocean’s 11. It’s not a bunch of slick master criminals but four boys playing at the elusive American Dream.
And from such an elevated starting point, we brace ourselves for a terrible fall. Hope plummets instantly to fear as the quartet are forced to face up to the violent cost of their ambitions. The four central performances perfectly portray this ethical turmoil, offering characters who both repel and attract like spinning magnets. Peters’s Warren is disarming: his anti-establishment, anti-hero act appeals to a rebellious streak in all of us, but his conscience is questioned when the “subversive” cause he rallies behind cannot justify the means. He claims to be sticking it to the man, but the only victim is an innocent woman. Keoghan’s Spencer is a deer in the headlights. You can never quite tell if he’s running towards something, or away from it – if he’s predator or prey. He sits on knife’s edge between the comfort of a loving family and the hunger to be something special.
Abrahamson and Jenner exude a tangible desperation as they see their futures crumble before them. Both remain willingly blind until the critical moment comes. Are they all simply trapped by peer pressure, suffocated by chains of their own making? Nikitin’s string-heavy score, which flicks between frantic violins and deep mournful double bass, perfectly compliments the twists and turns between schoolboy excitement and mournful reflection. On top of this, a cleverly selected soundtrack denotes the deluding influence of popular culture on impressionable youths.
Naturally, literary references also abound. Darwin makes an appearance not just through an edition of The Origin of Species. Layton’s imagery constantly alludes to our primitive instincts. Shots of birds brutally ripping apart birds – the illustrations taken, ironically, from the very book the young men plan to steal – are a reminder that although evolution brought us to the top of the food chain, the hunger of humanity bred a new internal hierarchy in capitalism. Nothing has changed save the consumer packaging. Supermarkets are hunting grounds. Alcohol-drenched frat parties provide tribal initiation. Gym membership is the ticket to your manhood. Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland paints a dizzying portrait of indulgence, vanity and toxic masculinity.
Indeed, the opening shots of an upside-down Kentucky streaming past the window show us a world turned on its head, where the top has become the bottom and the sky is no longer the limit. This is a film that charms us, thrills us, and then hits us with the heaviest of questions: are we destined to always want more than what we have?
American Animals is released nationwide on 7th September 2018.
Watch the trailer for American Animals here: