"American Animals" takes what sounds like a bizarre college prank gone wrong and blows it up into an epic, operatic modern tragedy, examining the murky depths of a uniquely American modern existential crisis. The film asks the uncomfortable question: When you've been given everything, how far do you have to go to feel anything?
This is the omnipresent, nagging inquiry at the center of Bart Layton's film, which is an Escher-esque labyrinth where documentary meets narrative filmmaking, then collides, twists and keeps climbing. Layton's previous film, "The Imposter," is a documentary that used narrative elements to tell the story of a European con artist scamming his way into an American family, and "American Animals" is about yet another fantabulous tall-tale teller. Tangling reality and fiction into one impossible knot is at the core of this story, and the form follows that function.
We start with the caveat that this is "based on a true story," or maybe not, and transitions into a seamless blend of interviews with the subjects and scenes with actors that are constantly replayed and reviewed as the subjects straighten out their intertwined, sometimes conflicting memories. The actors sometimes speak directly into the camera and finish the sentences of their real-life counterparts, who articulate, with the benefit of hindsight, the motivations of the young men. Sometimes actor and person share the space of the frame, coming face to face.
The crime is the bungled theft of several rare books from the Transylvania University library special collections, committed by four childhood friends from Lexington, Ky.: high-performing sons of privilege who found themselves uncharacteristically floundering in college. Spencer Reinhard, who appears as himself and is played by Barry Keoghan, claims that as an artist, he craved some kind of "life-altering event." Spencer's buddy, Warren (himself and actor Evan Peters), a star athlete on an athletic scholarship, laments the crushing realization that he isn't "special," as he'd been told his whole life. That's what spurs him to this hare-brained, Blockbuster movie-informed, meticulously planned scheme — the sheer extraordinary effort it required would make him special, different. The film becomes a stark, dark distillation of this white, millennial, American male crisis of the self.
The unique structure subtly indicts its subjects too. We see them, in present day, in their dwellings: a garage, a locker room. They are safe, seemingly healthy, not dead or in prison. We know they are fine, which limits how much we can get involved in the increasingly hysterical stakes, as they skid out on ego, posturing and the need for adventure. And you have to ponder that it's an absolute privilege to be so bored with life that one might have cook up this elaborate problem to tackle.
The quartet didn't escape their due, serving seven years in federal prison. That's life-altering, all right. But as the film progresses, detailing the extraordinary effort to follow through on this plan, you can't help but feel there's some element of lionization of these men and their exploits. They tell their story while we wonder about their victim, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd). She was violently subdued, Tased and bound. What does she have to say?
When the real Betty Jean finally gets to speak, it's a clarion call. "They did not want to work for a transformative experience," she asserts, and her voice rings like a bell of truth. The shifty, smiley Warren slyly implies with a toothy grin that we'll have to take his word for it on whether or not his version of events is real. But ultimately, it's his victim, Betty Jean, who has the real power of truth on her side, and she who gets the last word.
"American Animals" — 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material)
Running time: 1:56