Literary Crimes

One of the most intelligent and absorbing films to hit screens this year, Bart Layton’s American Animals is a crime film with a difference. Recalling an incident from 2004, when a quartet of young men decide to steal from a university library, it’s a docu-drama that casts both actors and also features interviews with the real perpetrators, family members and even the victim.

Layton is best known for his 2012 documentary The Imposter, about a confidence trickster who claimed to be a missing person, and he brings many of the skills he deployed there onto American Animals. The story revolves around art student Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters), a rebel on an athletics scholarship, who hatch a plan to steal a valuable text, The Birds of America, from the collection in the Transylvania University library in Kentucky.

After Warren travels to Amsterdam to make contact with a fence who will sell on the contraband, he and Spencer enlist the help of two friends, Chas (Blake Jenner) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson), to carry out the crime. Throughout, Layton intersperses to-camera interviews with the real people involved, who frequently offer contradictory accounts of this astonishing misadventure. The unreliable nature of memory plays a large – and oft-entertaining – part.

The core robbery is brilliantly realised by Layton, not only for its comedic unfolding but for the horrifying undertones. The poor librarian Betty (Ann Dowd) is left helpless, hogtied and scared witless by this thuggery; all of a sudden you’re not laughing and even less so when the real Betty makes an appearance on screen. If anything American Animals – which takes its title from a passage in Charles Darwin’s On the Original of Species – is a film about guilt and regret at crimes past.

Layton takes great delight in the blending of fact and fiction (even letting the real people appear in the dramatised section at one point). It’s original moves like this that make American Animals a boundary-pushing work. With cast-iron performances from all the main cast, particularly Evan Peters as the live-wire Warren, this is a film you simply cannot afford to miss.

American Animals opens on 7 September. For more details, click here.

1. Still from American Animals.