Four young students (Jared Abrahamson, Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner) conspire to steal an extremely rare and valuable book from their university's library, but all have of them have their own reasons for carrying off the heist.
The idea of basing a movie on a true story often brings up numerous questions as to veracity of both the content and the storyteller themselves. The disclaimer at the start of the movie is always prefixed with the 'Based On', and the implication being that whatever's considered irrelevant - dramatically or otherwise - is then jettisoned or glanced over in favour of something more energetic and entertaining. This also cuts to the moral fallout what goes on during the movie itself. With 'The Wolf Of Wall Street', the excess of Jordan Belfort's hard-partying life was captured with the energy of a crazed music video. With something like 'Hacksaw Ridge', the horror of war is couched in between some incredible directing that creates a thrilling ride that almost completely misses the point of making an anti-war movie.
'American Animals' is a different animal entirely - no pun intended. From the very beginning of the movie, we're introduced to the real-life versions of the characters played by Keoghan, Peters et al who narrate the action, pause the tape to give their side of the story and contextualise the action and drama on screen with their own brutally honest recollections of the events that took place. This, in itself, presents a fascinating mixture of documentary and narrative, but what the movie does even better is give us the full scope of the story and not just the exciting parts. Keoghan's character, Spencer Reinhard, seems dazed and confused whilst his real-life counterpart seems genuinely haunted by his actions. Evan Peters, on the other hand, seems unperturbed and so to does the real Warren Lipka.
This dynamic between the real and the imagined heightens every aspect of the movie, thus giving the action and tension an injection of realism and vitality that it'd be sorely lacking without. Moreover, the fallout of their actions is clearly defined so that as much we can be told how badly it went, we can see it and hear it on the faces of those who lived it - and those who suffered because of it. Bart Layton's previous film, 'The Imposter', dealt with the nature of truth and fiction on a far more intimate scale, but here, the lines are blurred in a way that hasn't been done before this well. This makes for a gripping crime thriller, but with all of the moral complexities that are so often removed to make for a sleeker story.
Layton's direction firmly grasps both the documentary interviews and the storytelling that springs from it, and giving that same story a visual flourish with smart editing, layered music, and an understanding of how to block and pace an action sequence. The heist is even shown both as how they expect it to go - looking like a Guy Ritchie knock-off - and how it really went down with the grimy nature of it intact. Very few directors would have the courage to be this daring and original, especially on their second feature-length effort, but Bart Layton's talents here guide him to an assured if not entirely neat ending.