With American Animals (2018), writer / director Bart Layton deploys techniques he introduced in his excellent documentary The Imposter (2012) to create a biopic like no other, one that’s actually entertaining.
The true-crime story itself is interesting – 4 college boys who devise a plan to steal and sell priceless books from a college library – yet in lesser hands it’s easy to see how it may have worn thin.
It’s not a documentary. Layton instead takes the opportunity to create a heist movie, revelling in the naïve and inept protagonists’ discovery of the genre’s tropes. Many an homage is paid to classics of the genre as the protagonists “study” for their heist by watching these films. Comedy ensues.
The technique of intercutting talking head footage of the actual perpetrators and their family throughout the film at first seems gimmicky while setting up a comedic tone. However, the same technique provides for empathy with the characters involved and continually serves as a stark reminder that the events actually happened – and to seemingly ordinary people. It is far less a gimmick that it is a welcome short cut to the necessary insights required to tell a story from the point of view of the anti-heroes.