Heist movies are kind of like the common cold: you can catch one during any season, and you never know how strong an effect it will have on you. The difference is of course that you want the cold to affect you as little as possible, and the movie as much as possible. American Animals is a good heist movie, as it makes a powerful and lasting impression. For director Bart Layton, this is his first narrative feature, coming after several documentaries in short and long format. American Animals itself was initially planned as a documentary, before Layton decided to shift to fiction – though not entirely, as the movie is still punctuated by extracts of interviews with the real people portrayed in the story.
The heist in question is atypical in all respects: its aim (rare books from the 19th Century, on the topic of biology – Audubon’s anthology of paintings The Birds of America, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species); its location (the books are stored in a university’s library and guarded by, well, a librarian); its perpetrators (four men in their early twenties), and most of all the motivations of the latter. They all attend college, have families surrounding them, and are not in dire financial need or out for revenge against society. They do not have to commit this robbery, but they go on with it anyway, for reasons that remain disparate and vague. It is a mixture of the boldness involved in daring to plan and execute such a deed, the foolishness of being silly enough to dismiss all obvious signs that their plan could never succeed, and a strong sense of reluctance to give in to life’s dull prospect of monotony and lack of sparkle.
Bart Layton essentially depicts his characters as youngsters moving forward with their actions without overthinking, or thinking enough, about them. Hence, he steers his movie the same way, in an unbiased documentary fashion that chronicles a series of events with no intention of burdening them with heavy symbolism, or prescience regarding their outcome. Layton films what happened as remembered by the people involved, and leaves the question of why it happened on the side of the road, being aware that there is an element of indecipherable human mystery to it. That way, American Animals is compelling and entertaining, boosted by its four talented leads (Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner) and the inspired collection of songs compiled by Layton on the soundtrack – from Nas and Mos Def to Leonard Cohen and Donovan (“Hurdy Gurdy Man,” almost as chilling as in Zodiac).
American Animals reaches for something more profound once the crime is perpetrated, when its characters discover how they react to having crossed that moral line. There is no finding it before you cross it, and once you have there is no coming back. This eats each of them up from the inside (a feeling the film captures in a powerful manner), as they did not truly have criminal minds, but rather artistic ones. Layton ends his movie on that unexpected and sensitive note, which forms the link between all four real people now that this story is behind them. As he lets each of them go, the director tells us that whether it is by writing, filming, or painting, they all discovered in the end an artistic way to try and find more in life than its basic horizons. Maybe this odd plan for a flawed heist was the path they needed to take, to figure themselves out.