Is this the new definition of true-crime reality?
Jared Abrahamson, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, and Barry Keoghan (l-r)
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Truth, no matter how much we disagree, has always been about perception. Two people view the same incident. Stop. Do two people actually view the same incident? From their different vantage points (even if the two people happen to be standing side-by-side), can we truly say they are seeing the same event, the same elements taking place at that exact moment? This question, is one of many explored in writer-director Bart Layton’s “American Animals.”
Reality television, especially as conceived, say, since MTV’s “The Real World,” understood the power and impact of perspective. Live moments occur (via edited remixing from a variety of camera angles) and then audiences receive commentary from participants, allowing them (and us) to relive those moments as if we have somehow been transplanted inside their heads. We hear what they might have meant when they said and/or did certain things. In most cases, the commentary introduces levels of snark or cloying sentiment to lure us into a greater association with a particular person. Rarely are we given the chance to learn more about the facts of the events, because the facts don’t matter.
“American Animals” appreciates this dynamic and exploits it to perfection. There is meta-level presentation dramatizing events, allowing the commentary from real-life players to stand in too-close proximity to that of the actors essaying the same roles. Evan Peters (Quicksilver from the “X-Men” prequels) and Barry Keoghan (the deliriously creepy kid from “Killing of a Sacred Deer”) respectively bring to life Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard, two of the four young college students who attempt to steal rare books from a university museum in Kentucky.
The heist begins almost on a dare, as the pair discuss the lack of security and the preposterous value of the books and artifacts on display. The genius of the narrative emerges as Layton shows the two characters describing the same moments—side-by-side—with blatantly obvious contradictions that might seem minor at first glance, but later on, we see that the discrepancies reveal a potentially deeper con being perpetrated by these players on one another. Who can you believe when facts have been exposed as fictions throughout?
Film has always reveled in this teasing unreliability. After all, we watched (for some, multiple times) as Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) relayed that engrossingly preposterous story about several heists executed by “The Usual Suspects” of Bryan Singer’s modern neo-noir classic, only to have the wool pulled over our eyes at the very end. The debate continues to rage, in fact, over the identity of the criminal mastermind Keyser Söse—what he the smooth-talking Kint or the ultra-suave Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne)?
As the events unfold in Layton’s film and we ping-pong between the two primary points of view, it becomes difficult to determine who is the mastermind behind this dubious and completely misguided heist. Is it enough to present the idea in the first place or does control evolve through the process of developing a plan? The further along we travel down the story’s somewhat humorous byways, a sly darkness creeps into the frames, leading us to wonder if the rising ruthlessness is what tips one character into control.
At the end of the day, because we’re operating in a criminal sphere, it would seem that success might matter more than anything else, and the realization here is that these “animals” are clearly stereotypical American fools. But Layton guides us down the lane with assurance belying his relative inexperience within the feature filmmaking realm. Yet, it’s worth noting that he helmed “The Imposter,” a 2012 documentary about a young man living abroad in Spain who reaches out to a Texas family, claiming to be their missing teenage son. That film and this one share the same level of supreme confidence necessary to make people believe things other than the presented facts.
None of the actual men involved in the job—who were caught, convicted, and eventually served time for the crime—seems worthy of such lofty appellations as criminals or con artists. They don’t even seem like a collection of eager tools who simply watched too many movies and dreamed of stepping into celebrated roles on the big screen. Their story though earns this distinction for them and Layton knows just how to make us believe a small-time scam could become the stuff of legends. More than mere truth or fiction, fact or fakery; “American Animals” is a repackaging of modern cultural mythology.
Storytellers, at the end of the day, are the greatest con artists, because the best of them know which strings to pull to make us believe. That’s the work of the devil.