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Non-Review Review: American Animals

“To do this thing would take extraordinary effort,” observers Warren Lipka of his fiendish heist scheme in American Animals. “Not ordinary effort.”

Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is a blend of documentary and dramatisation. It explores the true story of the effort by four young men to steal a collection of precious books from the Library of Transylvania, a scheme that went disastrously and spectacularly wrong. Adopting a style that recalls Bernie or a slightly more grounded I, Tonya, Layton slices interviews with the real-life criminals into a narrative reconstruction of the attempted crime. The results are intriguing, occasionally veering into an exploration of the malleability of memory and the limits of personal perspective.

Up to their old tricks.

At the same time, American Animals is very much engaged with a masculine middle-class malaise. A recurring motif of the film has various figures from around the four criminals pause to reflect upon the character of these young men. “They were good kids,” various talking heads assert over the course of the documentary, talking fondly about their childhoods and their schoolwork and their aspirations. The four young men at the heart of American Animals did not plan (and botch) a heist because they were bad kids or because they needed the money. They did not act out of desperation or anger.

Instead, American Animals suggests that the characters enacted this ambitious and absurd scheme out of a sense of boredom, out of a desire to escape the mundanity of their everyday lives, to do something “extraordinary” to transcend their so-called “ordinary” lives.

Model citizens.

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