In today’s climate, where calls of “fake news” that were meant to undercut purposely manipulative information are instead simply used as a cudgel against facts one doesn’t like, there’s been a correlative movement to craft intelligent films that hybridize fiction and documentary, toying with recreations and manipulations in order to present a greater truth. With ‘American Animals’, one of the great movies of 2018, writer/director Bart Layton takes this dynamic to another level.
Layton’s previous film, ‘The Imposter’, was an exceptional work of non-fiction that likewise bridged the narrative/documentary divide. It told a story almost too fanciful to be believed, yet contextualized it within the journalistic basis of “fact.” This allowed some of the film’s flights of fancy to be enthralling without being dismissed as implausible. The film says the events happened this way, and so we believe even when that seems unbelievable.
This is a powerful tool. To sway audiences by promises of “Based on a True Story” can allow a filmmaker to get away with all manner of aggrandizement. Yet with ‘American Animals’, Layton’s non-fiction prowess comes to the fore, making explicit both the true and untrue aspects of the filmmaking, laying bare in ways that previously would have been labeled postmodern the challenges of telling a true story within the context of a narrative film.
One way the director does so is by cross-cutting both actual and acted witness accounts, superimposing the performances by the actors to the individuals they portray. This sets the hybrid up for many curveballs, particularly where the stories don’t match up. In fascinating ways, the film toys with these testimonials, making visual how everything from the smallest details to wide sweeps of action often seem contradictory.
A terrific ensemble of young actors bring the story to life. Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters and Jared Abrahmson comprise the core group of dudes who have watched too many ‘Ocean’s 11’-style caper movies and decide to undertake their own heist in real life, only for the whole thing to go disastrously wrong because real life is not like the movies. Udo Keir and the always impeccable Ann Dowd provide much in the way of added impact. Thanks to Layton’s vision and photography by Ole Bratt Birkeland, we’re treated to various moods and conflicting elements that all merge into something deeply intelligent and extremely entertaining.
So much of the fun comes from going along for the narrative ride, but what’s extraordinary is how the film is always confident in the audience’s ability to duck and cover when the storyline weaves, rarely stopping for breath as we tease out the truth from the onslaught of disparate elements. It’s a giddy experience watching the genre trappings of a straight-up heist film elevated by the smart ideas being expressed by the brilliantly calculated script.
We so often decry the dumbing down of cinema, working for the lowest common denominator in order to appease the greatest number. Similarly, art films rarely embrace pure entertainment, eschewing those parts that make the greatest films work in favor of somber or polemical ideas meant to be appreciated rather than emotionally embraced. As a hybrid between truth and fiction, ‘American Animals’ is a great success. As a combination of art film and brisk entertainment, it’s a home run. Layton has shown one way forward, and while his film may get lost in the cacophony of larger movies this summer season, or dismissed by a snobbery looking for the esoteric and confounding, ‘American Animals’ takes the best of what makes cinema work and treats us to pleasures both visceral and intellectual.