Bart Layton's filmography isn't exactly what one would think of as an indicator that he would be a good fit to direct a heist drama. Working behind the camera primarily as a documentarian, the director hasn't seemed attracted by dramatization until his now latest film, American Animals. But even here, ducking into the fictional side of the cinematic aisle is something of a half-measure, as Layton's documentary roots are spread all over this thing, threatening to consume the project under the trappings of needless experimentalism. And yet, as far as half-measures go, this is a pretty darn successful one.
During the college school year of 2003-2004, a pair of friends by the name of Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) get the bright idea to commit a robbery. Their target is the special collections library of Kentucky's Transylvania University, which houses rare books such as a collection of Audobon prints depicting various wildlife. The motive is suburban ennui and a rebellion against the banality of their purchased academic success. In other words, they're bored as hell and want a petty thrill. As they spend the better part of a year planning their robbery, they eventually recruit two more to the job to help with planning and execution: Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson).
What sets American Animals apart from similarly premised heist films is that occasionally the camera will cut from the acted drama to visit talking head interviews with the real-life perpetrators of the robbery. Essentially this turns the film into a high budget and more dramatic version of a true-crime reenactment that one might see on basic cable, except that by interviewing the criminals rather than the police we get a certain amount of empathetic understanding for what Reinhard, Lipka, Allen, and Borsuk were thinking and feeling over this year in their lives. It even allows for interesting moments where the men's stories conflict with one another, playing with minor details that emphasize how each of them was approaching this ill-advised venture for different goals driven by varying levels of sound reasoning.
This insight also helps to inform the performances of the main cast, mainly in how Barry Keoghan interprets Reinhard as an awkward dreamer who got in over his head on what he originally conceived as a fun thought experiment. Evan Peters probably deserves the greatest amount of credit, though, as his portrayal of Lipka is a complex tangle of confused motivations and petty ambitions. He delivers this constant sense of fragile bravado that masks a desire to accomplish something independent of the sports grooming his family placed upon him from a young age, and he turns that confusion into the emotional core of a film where confidence slowly gives way to second-guessing guilt and paranoia.
American Animals loses some steam during the third act after the heist is executed, with the emotional toll of the crime failing to hold as much interest as the turmoil inherent in the planning, and there's a reasonable argument to be made that the constant back-and-forth between dramatic reenactment and interview monologue detracts from the emotional impact of both forms of storytelling. However, on the whole, Bart Layton's tentative foray into fictional narrative is a success in melding the best personal aspects of documentary journalism with the emotional impact of cinematic performance. The experiment may not pay off in dividends, but it certainly pays off in ways a lesser filmmaker bridging fiction and non-fiction would bungle horribly.