‘American Animals’ SXSW Review: An art heist for the modern zeitgeist

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One of the most dangerous things in the world is a group of bored white guys. You know the type: People convinced of their privilege and place in the world, looking to do something “memorable” in order fill the massive gaping holes at their core in order to be something other than the generic dumb fucks that they are. Normally this shit is contained to the frat house or and your garden-variety college campus, but occasionally it spills out into the world at large, which threatens the lives of other people, and Bart Layton’s new film, the Sundance hit American Animals is precisely about one of those times, a “true story” about four college-aged friends who, in 2004, attempted to pull off one of the most reckless and, frankly, ballsy art heists in American history.

Layton, best known for his 2012 smash hit doc The Imposter, decides to do something as formally ambitious as his protagonists’ actual ambitions, and meshes up a Hollywood-styled reenactment of these events with real actors like Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters alongside his typical documentary work- interviews with the actual heist perpetrators and their families. It’s a bit of a bridge too far for Layton, as it bloats his film and covers all of the excellent material within with a layer of fat that honestly should have been trimmed.

American Animals portrays the story of the “Transy Book Heist,” in which the four kids, all Kentucky natives, robbed the rare book room at Transylvania University in an attempt to steal original copies of Audubon’s Birds of America and a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The de facto leader, Warren Lipka (portrayed in the reenactments by Evan Peters), is a troubled University of Kentucky student enduring his parents’ divorce and crippling ennui, and his best friend Spencer (Keoghan) is an talented art student at Transylvania wondering what his place in the world is.

Their decision to commit the robbery is unfurled in puffs of pot smokes and sips of Natty Ice, and Spencer hides from Warren the fact that he’s kind of hoping this thing gets snuffed out before they can do something stupid. Warren latches onto it with an obsessive tendency, and begins to pull others in: accounting student Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and muscle-bound entrepreneur Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), before committing to the plan. To say that it would have tragic consequences for everyone involved, including the rare book room’s only staffer, BJ Gooch (Ann Dowd), would be both an understatement and an overstatement.

When Layton is having fun with his formal choices, American Animals sings, such as a scene early on in which Keoghan and Peters’ real life analogues debate over where the specific place where they came up with the idea to rob the library and the actors on screen react accordingly, merging the scenes until one takes over. There’s also an unbearable tension in the heist scenes, including an abandoned first attempt in which the cast is outfitted in old-man make-up and costuming, and the actual heist, which is as harrowing as you might expect. These moments are always contrasted with the Hollywood presentation of the clockwork heist (which is where the two masterminds grabbed most of their inspiration from), and Layton also has an eye for in the moment detail that might escape some of his contemporaries.

But the film has serious pacing issues, due to the fact that the director never manages to establish a cohesive flow between his documentary material and his slightly fictionalized reenactments, and at points one might wish that he’d picked one and went with it accordingly. There’s also a weird revelation sprung on us as the film is proceeding to its credits, one which I wish they’d managed to incorporate just a little earlier on, or at least alluded to in some fashion. The artistry is there, though- there are some exquisite moments peppered throughout between the fantastic cast, and Layton knows how to wring an unbearable tension out of even the smallest moment- so others might find it more compelling than I did, ultimately.

‘American Animals’ hits theaters on June 1. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Photo via The Orchard.