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American Animals is a dark retelling of an absurd and pitiable crime

It might be the daftest smash-and-grab conceived since Mr Bean pinched Whistler’s Mother. In 2003, four students at Transylvania University in Kentucky plotted to steal several rare and valuable books from the campus library, a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species among them. Their old-man disguises deceived no one, a woman was left traumatised, the heist a disaster. American Animals is a captivating and darkly ominous retelling of an absurd and pitiable crime.

The writer and director is Bart Layton, who made The Imposter, a surreal documentary of subterfuge and impersonation. This is his first foray into drama, though he still clings to the doco form that made his name. Audaciously, the film features actors as well as the real perpetrators and their often muddled or absolving versions of events. “This is not based on a true story,” an introductory title reads, before the words “not based on” disappear. “Who knows if this is how it really went?” one character asks.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Layton does cunningly imaginative things with blurred lines of testimony: a “real” character will finish his fictional version’s sentences. One assertion of truth in the dramatisation will be countered in an interview. More than once, Layton places the “real” person alongside his thespian double in a fictional scene. Another sequence is rewound, replacing one figure for another based on competing recollections.

There are four criminals, but the intrigue settles mostly on morose art-school student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and wired sports-scholarship waster Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). For Spencer, the theft is a rebellion against conformity, against the predetermined trek from school, through university to a mediocre job. The camaraderie of planning the job is an antidote to despair. Warren’s motivation is much more troubling: he does it because he can.

Divorced from reality, and removed from the consequences of their actions, the gang turn to films for inspiration: they give each other codenames ripped from Reservoir Dogs. There’s a clever visual quotation from Goodfellas. A fantasy version of how the job will go mimics the slick and jazzy climax to Ocean’s 11.

Of course, this is not Hollywood. Their actions are desperate, messy and de-praved. American Animals shares its unreliable narrators and uncomfortable shimmies between fact and fiction with last year’s I, Tonya. Unlike that film, it does not collapse into moral relativism, or evasion or unfocused irony. And it’s here that Layton provides a clear ethical judgment. Their crime had a victim, and justly, the last word goes to her.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.