Thursday 13 September 2018

The book thieves: "American Animals"

After a decade of TV work, British writer-director Bart Layton broke through with 2012's The Imposter, a documentary study of a French con artist that earned its theatrical run by being shot and edited like a mystery thriller. His follow-up American Animals presents like a mirror image in several aspects: this is a heist movie, albeit one that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction as early as its opening credits, with the erasure of the third and fourth words from the standard disclaimer "This is based on a true story". Taken together - and cinema programmers should note they tessellate in several respects - these two features propose that Layton has an unusually sharp eye and ear, not just for a gripping yarn, but for nascent amorality, characters who mean to lie, cheat and steal. If he can resist the well-paying lures of streaming and cable, his ultimate destiny may be to make the 21st century's most pertinent and probing film on the subject of modern politics.

For now, however, we have the tale of a quartet of alienated, bored and blustering Kentucky college kids who, in 2004, had the less than clever, not terribly well thought-through idea of attempting to filch rare first editions of Audubon's Birds of America and Darwin's On the Origin of Species from their position under lock and key in their campus library. The gag - and, to a degree, the tragedy - underpinning the film their actions have inspired is that these were no Zuckerbergs, no Winklevi, no bright shining scions of American learning, rather ordinary, somewhat lumpen souls with not too much discernible wisdom between their ears, unable to distinguish right from wrong, yet raised to believe - as many entering the collegiate system have been - that they were in some way special, perhaps even untouchable. What unfolds is something like Michael Bay's Pain & Gain as undertaken by creatives with book smarts. 

Something like a postmodern Rope, too. Layton's boldest formal conceit - one that I think mixes things up rather brilliantly - is to puncture his dramatisations of the crime and its fallout with talking-head testimony from the students, their nearest and dearest, and anyone else who came to be involved. Initially, this might seem a little dutiful: the intervention of a filmmaker keen, in this moment of fake news, to show his working, provide references, underline the veracity of what we're watching. Layton is more Errol Morris than he is Wikipedia, though, and gradually these interjections come to introduce notes of (credible) uncertainty. The same conversation is alleged to have taken place in two separate locations; key details - the colour of a scarf, the age and ethnicity of the fence the would-be thieves sought out - are shown to diverge.

The tactic gestures, very slyly and cannily, towards the questionable character of Layton's witnesses. These kids don't strike you as greatly shiftier than the relentlessly dissembling subject of The Imposter, but they fall somewhere between disorganised and utterly unreliable as narrators of their own story; heaven only knows what they must have been like as criminals. Their contributions do, however, complicate the narrative line in a way that works to the film's advantage as a thriller. We can remain pretty certain these boys will make a hash of the raid itself, but we never really know - up until the point where they themselves know - how they're going to make a hash of it, and how big a hash it will be. (The answer, when it's revealed: pretty big.)

There's a faintly satiric aspect to the storytelling, and it is that strain of satire that often presents whenever an outsider is invited to cast an eye over callow American youth. For all their First World privilege, Layton's animals belong to the genus doofi ridiculosum. Here is a species of young male whose representatives' first response upon arriving in Amsterdam is to spark up a joint and follow their hormones into the red light district; who fall into the same argument the hoods in Reservoir Dogs did as to who among them will assume the supposedly feminised codename "Mr. Pink"; who struggle, flappy-handed, to pull on the plastic gloves that might prevent them from leaving traces of themselves behind at the scene of their crimes. 

Layton correctly senses there are several gaps here that require bridging, not least that between the quote-unquote masterplan in the students' heads - envisioned here with the wondrously precise choreography of Vegas stage magicians - and how the heist unfolded on the ground on the day in question. Practically the entire second half is a run-up - at first nervy and tentative, then panicky and desperate - to the crossing of a red line: the overpowering of the school's librarian, at which point petty larceny tips over into something more disturbing. I'm among the very few who laughed at Pain & Gain, but the misanthropic Bay would surely have made the librarian some shrill grotesque who got what she was deemed to deserve; Layton, however, casts the redoubtable character actor Ann Dowd, who suggests a slightly snippy but devoted public servant, trying to retain some dignity even as she watches the books disappear.

Bridging those gaps allows the film time to distinguish levels of culpability, as any good judge should. The naif Spencer at least has the nous to point out Reservoir Dogs is a flawed template for would-be criminality, as everybody dies at the end; Barry Keoghan's natural air of watchfulness seems a better fit in this role than it was among the laboured cruelties of last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (You can at least credit that this plain-faced aspirant artist might have wanted the Audubon for the inherent beauty of its pictures, rather than the money.) No such defence is possible for Evan Peters' Warren, a walking study in crassness, alternately wasted and washed out, as if he'd only been let out of his basement dwellings to wreak havoc on the world: a performance that reaches its apogee in a spectacular final-reel projection of bile. A smart touch, too, to call on Blake Jenner to play landed gymbunny Chas, reminding us (as Jenner does) that this is the same milieu we found Richard Linklater unapologetically celebrating back in 2016's Everybody Wants Some!!.

The film's success is that, for all its clever-clever futzing around with genre, form and audience expectations, it does still work as straightahead thriller. You can feel your insides knotting as these brats approach the library they've been staking out, again as they make a getaway every bit as haphazard as you feared it might be, and yet again as the authorities' dragnet pulls ever tighter. Even here, there are directorial grace notes, ripples, even wormholes to be spotted and admired. If the countercultural soundtrack at first seems incongruous for a film set in 2004, you soon realise that is likely deliberate: there are echoes in these songs of what an America in renewed, youthful bloom hoped to be, visions that provide sharp contrast with the jaded, selfish cashgrabs these 21st century boys are intent upon. And as real and fictional Spencers appear to catch one another's eye either side of the heist, American Animals creates a continuum - initially jolting, then strangely touching - between the main action's Leopold-and-Loebs-in-waiting and the rueful, reflective, varyingly compromised thirtysomethings they became. Dare I say: you wouldn't necessarily have to have snaffled a rare Darwin to recognise the road the pair find themselves travelling on.

American Animals is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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