Bart Layton, writer and director of American Animals released his first feature in 2012 to critical acclaim. The Imposter was a true crime documentary that no doubt would have been huge if it came out a couple of years later, after the true crime documentary craze exploded. The film accounts through interview and reconstruction the tale of a young man who conned a family into believing that he was their long missing son. It’s a compelling story, made more so by the fact that the main interviewee taking us through events is the fraudster himself.
We would see this reflected in the success of Serial later on. People’s interest is piqued by the possibility to access the guilty party. We all are convinced that we are rational clear-minded people, in the presence of enough evidence surely we should be able to be a perfect arbiter of guilt. There’ll come a point when we can tell if we are being lied to.
The last few spiralling episodes of Serial (Season 1) are about facing the preconceptions that we hold about our own surety. Or refusing to face them as some listeners on a still active subreddit still investigating and litigating the case can aptly prove. We must find a way to live with our doubts, in the same way that those involved must learn to live with what they did.
I’m not going to call American Animals a documentary. Despite featuring prominently interviews with the four would be criminals who attempted a bungled robbery of rare books from a university library, it doesn’t seem to be at all interested in documenting the event. Rather, it feels that the recollections of these men, now all having served their time, will lend an interesting texture to the events that we’re witnessing unfold.
It does, at first. Layton uses the haziness of their recollection for all manner of fun directorial tricks, overdubbing lines, changing up locations and confusing the order of events depending on whose narration we’re taking in the moment. It allows the film to become something of a shared memory play, bowling through the exciting early stages of crime planning with an affable looseness that comes drawn from the haze of time.
Then we get to their attempted execution of it and the film’s device stalls itself flat. All these grown men have their feelings upon what happened, they all mostly seem to regret it. But they’re all there. They all agreed to be interviewed. We’ve watched them all as they’ve excitedly built us up to this point and suddenly, as they sit there — ashen faced, shameful — the film’s manipulation becomes apparent. When seeing these men for the first time it felt like all this texture might build into something. It does not.
These men did something bad and now they feel sad. That’s all we’re going to get out of them. I am unsure if the interviewer chose not push their subjects into a deeper exploration of the areas they felt uncomfortable, or if those responses were simply not included in the edit. Not to do so however, is in this case not a justifiable choice. To present it the way it does provides us a comforting narrative: dumb kids who make bad decisions can change.
These folks were at college though. They were about the same age that I am now. They were adults making grown decisions and as no good, very bad as they feel now; creating what comes close to an advertisement of their current upstanding moral character feels incomplete without demonstration that they have put in the work. Structuring an entire film to create the sense that it has been achieved is not that. For some of them the most that we get out is a frank admission that they haven’t.
Whatever intent the filmmakers had in including these segments has been diluted down to the point that it is no longer apparent. Without that, despite the whole film being directed slickly enough, its most exciting element is moot. The young cast plays it well, but one senses that in the adaptation of the story the group dynamic may have been streamlined somewhat: good kid, bad kid, nerd, jock. The four leads though: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson find sufficient detailing within those archetypes to carry through a feature, and reassuringly don’t play to flatter the real life folks they share the screen with.
But the film does though, in that same way that the legion of films that have come in the wake of The Wolf of Wall Street do because their directors aren’t as accomplished at handling character as Scorsese. So, as charming as it is (and I sincerely hope Layton’s next project is better conceived), it cannot be excused.
American Animals is currently screening in UK cinemas.