Based upon a true story, American Animals follows four discontent college students who plotted and committed a library heist at the Transylvania University, Kentucky in 2004. What makes this event so out of the ordinary is its context. These weren’t your usual cut of criminals (if there’s such a thing). Prior to the event taking place, to an outside observer these four students appear well adjusted, intelligent, talented and fortunate. No visible signs suggested they’d carry go on to carry out an act that which would put them in prison for seven years. In addition to this, their decision to rob a library appeared out of the ordinary. It’s not everyday you hear gripping news articles chronicling the clearing of bookshelves during a daytime caper. A bunch of relatively timid individuals attacking a library and fleeing with the literature of Charles Darwin? It’s not exactly the sort of report we see in our tabloids every day.
In an attempt to emphasis that the events playing out onscreen happened as we’re seeing them, writer & director Bart Layton attempts to validate the narrative by having the real life individuals behind the crime narrate the events playing out on screen. This endeavour to establish credibility with regards to this story proves effective; allowing us not only to better understand the reasons behind why these four individuals would carry out such an act, but also as a means of making the more outlandish moments appear less ridiculous. When Warren Lipka swans off to Amsterdam to talk business with black market buyers, the real-life Spencer, Chas and Eric explain how the events as we’re seeing them could have either been exaggerated or fabricated by Warren himself.
The film’s emphasis on the accounts being retold by narrators possessing unreliable or magnified memories essentially allows Layton to have his cake and eat it. He wants us to know this is a true story, yet one where the more heightened and dramatic moments are read as magnified memories as opposed to truth-bending. This allows American Animals to be dramatic, colourful and over-the-top and still be strictly understood as a “true story”. Everything happened, according to Layton, it’s just we’re seeing it all from the perspectives of those who are remembering everything as if they were the stars of their own Hollywood flick. Memories are selective, they romanticise situations we find ourselves in all the time, and they love to lie to us. All we have to do is cast ourselves back to our teenager years to see this example play out. Although most of our younger years were boring, dismal and caked with anxiety, it’s easy to recall it all as if we were the starts of a sensationalist teen drama. We’re all capable of glossing over the years since past and adding a cinematic shine to them, so what’s to say those at the heart of this event didn’t perceive the build-up and fallout of that December day in such a flashy, larger-than-life fashion?
American Animals makes use of this trick right the way throughout. Characters shift appearance mid scene to emphasise conflicting recollections; clothing changes colour as we jump from one perspective to the next, and entire sets transform before our very eyes to compromise each memory. Layton effectively incorporates this trick without it becoming too disorientating or frustrating. The shifts are subtle, no more distracting than a camera jumping back and forth during a reverse angle conversation. We are able to fully comprehend what’s happening on the screen, despite multiple perspectives fighting for domination of the narrative.
In addition to justifying the peculiar nature and incredulity of this story, giving us conflicting perspectives from the real life folk involved in the 2004 Transylvania University heist also allows us to step firmly inside the minds of these individuals. From the outside, they will largely be seen as selfish, privileged kids who feel entitled to an easy life (which in a lot of ways they are). They come from wealthy homes, are white cisgender heteronormative males, have promising futures and access to solid educational programs. Let’s not beat around the bush, in comparison to a lot of people, they are lucky sods. It’s not like they’re going to go hungry, fall victim to prejudice or wind up along and on the streets. They are exceptionally fortunate, yet in their opinion there’s plenty to be frustrated about. They yearn for lives stuffed with meaning, to be something more than what their parents envision, and want to know what life outside the humdrum of everyday routine feels like. Their bubble of comfort and fortune irritates their souls; guiding them down a path they do not wish to walk.
Although many of us understand the existential angst and disappointment which comes from existing in a meaningless universe unwilling to bend to our will, most of us haven’t tried to steal valuable books in order to quell such dissatisfaction. Most of us go about lowering our existential anxieties by finding meaning through work, hobbies, families, political action, teaching, becoming parents, marriage and so forth. For this reason, getting us to understand these kids’ actions is no easy task. To everyone else, they look like a group of pebble-brained idiots trying to fix their teenage angst in a ridiculous and frankly selfish manner.
Giving us direct access to their perspectives and recollections of their actions, however, allows us to peak further into their world and see the situation directly through their eyes. Visually, the camera emphasises each character’s alienation and detachment from the larger world around them by amplifying the space around them. When each of our four main characters are onscreen, there are little or no other characters occupying the shots with them. If there are, the lens often distorts them to appear far away or dethatched from them. Early on in the film, each scene they are in is low lit and colour deprived; accentuating the hopelessness and disappointment they are feeling. It isn’t until the four come together and start plotting their heist that the style and feel of the film starts to change. As they’re putting together their plan, colours start to bleed back into shot, their relationship with extras and sets starts to become more intimate, and the camera even goes so far as to present them as if they’re the stars of their own Hollywood flick (in this case, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven).
We aren’t simply invited to learn about their story, we are seeing it as they saw it. When their life is empty, we experience it as they they. When things start looking up for the four of them, we’re invited to look at the world as they did. We empathise through their outlooks. For 116 minutes, we look out through their eyes; witnessing this bizarre true crime not as a piece of sensationalism, but as if us ourselves were taking part in it. Their is an emotional logic provided to us through the visual execution Layton has pieced together from these four individual’s recollections of that day back in December 2004.
Except there’s a much subtler move to all of this which doesn’t quite hit home until the end. By placing us behind the eyes of these four individuals, we’re made to side with people we might not otherwise empathise with in most situations. Seeing Warren, Spencer, Chas and Eric come together in an attempt to shatter their humdrum existence can initially be read as a tale of four teens work to overcome affluenza-induced anxiety. We feel their pain, see the excitement brought about by their fantasy of pulling off a heist and relate with their desire to break away from the status-quo. Yet this is nothing more than a naive dream fabricated by people who’ve blinded themselves from the reality of what they’re planning. Robbing a library isn’t a sure-fire way of obtaining significance in an insignificant world, just as is isn’t a way to make your fortunes. It’s an idiotic idea that will undoubtable get people hurt and result in these four clowns getting themselves thrown in jail.
By the third act, this reality is thrown at both our protagonists and the audience like a cup of cold water to the face. The bubble is burst and the fantasy shattered. Warren, Spencer, Chas and Eric royally fluff up their plans, make an encyclopaedia’s worth of rookie mishaps that make them easily identifiable by authorities, and harm an innocent librarian in the process. It’s around this point in which the tone and feel of the film shifts. Suddenly we’re not seeing a cinematic recreation of Warren and the gang’s recollections. Instead the direction is raw, choppy and fraught. We go from a cinematic retelling of a true story to an angst-ridden final act.
We’re invited at this point to re-evaluate the film we’ve been watching; to criticise and feel embarrassed by any empathy or warmth we may have felt for these individuals. Their selfishness, naivety and clumsiness is put in the spotlight. This realisation is made even more stark when the librarian caught up in the heist becomes the film’s fifth narrator. Inserting the victim into the narrative grants us access to a perspective that validates the one which the real-life Warren, Spencer, Chas and Eric start to admit to during the final act. Their behaviour was reckless, dangerous and doomed to fail from the start. They wanted a quick fix to life’s problems; something which many aren’t privileged to.
Again, all of this allows Layton to have his cake and eat it. He can tell a story which essentially shows it from the criminal perspective without it appearing to side with them. Whereas a majority of the narrative shows it from their viewpoint, the final act breaks down everything we’ve seen and exposes it as and idealised retelling of four boys’ heavy-footed attempt at breaking bad.
In short, American Animals is a fine exercise in depicting true-crime through the art of subjectivity. It invites audiences into the minds of four individuals who were at the centre of a bizarre and messy crime. Not only does its emphasis on the deceit of memory and subjective recollection allow the film to confidently declare that it’s [based on] a true story, it furthermore gives the film freedom to simultaneously glorify and critique the tale it’s telling.
A creative and unique piece of cinema that engages from start to finish. Certainly worth a look.