American Animals, directed by Bart Layton, is about the real-life story of 4 young adults, Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) who decided to steal several books of extremly high value, including The Birds of America and On the Origin of Species, from the library at Transylvania University.
Director Bart Layton, a frequenter of documentaries, decided to intersperse the story with footage of interviews with the real perpetrators of the heist and other involved people. This rather unorthodox direction proves to be one of the film’s most thought-provoking aspects.
However, before that, here is everything else that worked for the film. The acting across the four main stars, Keoghan, Peters, Abrahamson and Jenner, are uniformly powerful, particularly during the explosive third act where we get to observe the might of Murphy’s law playing in real-time. Despite a rather slow start, I was on the edge of my seat for the entirety of the second-half, and very majorly due to the intense performances from the actors. Evan Peters especially made me finally appreciate his range, as I mostly knew him as the semi-comic relief role of Quicksilver in two previous X-Men films. The amount of horror and desperation he conveyed was astounding and truly affecting.
The aforementioned documentary method used by director Bart Layton is strikingly refreshing. Having the real-life people involved in the heist to express themselves directly in the film was a great, albeit a little bit lazy, way of letting the audience sympathise with them very quickly. It also allows the audience to understand the psychology and reasons behind their actions (and reactions) in the most direct way. Simultaneously, this blending of documentary and film also leaves a lot of questions hanging after the credits are rolled.
The film starts with a very noticeable statement: This is not based on a true story, this is a true story. This statement is not one that can be thrown around lightly, because it implies that the film has taken no creative licenses and is essentially - true. However, from the get-go, the film contradicts itself on this statement already by introducing unreliable narratives. And so, the accuracy of the adaptation, and even the authenticity of the interviews, come under question.
Intentionally or not, this film becomes a kind of commentary on the process of adaptation itself. This is important because adaptations, and films in general, can be very manipulative. Simple changes of the original material (event, book etc.) can already convey a wildly different message. The original story of Mulan was never about female empowerment, it was about patriotism and filial piety. So, what the filmmaker decides to include (or exclude) directly influences how viewers view, and learn from, an event. Not all films have an agenda, but all films are subjective. And we, as relatively passive recipients of said subjectivity, must choose for ourselves what to take in, and what not to.
American Animals leaves this quite open for interpretation. On the one hand, the protagonists are portrayed as very sympathetic. Their desire to escape their mundane (college) lives and their eventual regret, seem to be an attempt to justify the heist. However, the film also showed the protagonists intentionally harming Betty Jean Gooch, the librarian, in an intense sequence. Should we therefore condemn the four perpetrators of the heist for their immorality, or should we instead sympathize with their regret and their ability to grow as human beings (they sounded very apologetic in the interviews)? American Animals leaves this open for contemplation. Having said that, I feel like the film tends to suggest the latter. When the mournful music sounds, accompanying the tears of the real-life Spencer as he voices out his immense regret in a poignant finale, it becomes really, really difficult to dislike the four protagonists, even after witnessing them traumatize an innocent middle-aged librarian and jeopardize invaluable artifacts.