The heist thriller American Animals manages to be unlike any film I have ever seen before. It draws from established filmmaking traditions, but it deploys those techniques in boldly unique ways. The opening titles read, “This is not based on a true story,” and then the middle of that sentence fades away for it to then say, “This is a true story.” Writer/director Bart Layton’s did actually base it all on a real incident in 2004 in which four students at Lexington, Kentucky’s Transylvania University stole valuable art prints and rare books from the school’s library. The distinction between truth and “based on truth” is a signal that American Animals is a hybrid of dramatization and documentary. Most of the movie is a recreation of events, while talking head interviews with the actual people involved serve to comment upon and edit the course of the narrative.

American Animals is not the first based-on-true-life film to incorporate documentary elements. Richard Linklater’s Bernie features commentary from real people, although not the major players, but rather everyday Texas citizens who are there to provide small-town color. American Animals’ approach is more akin to that of I, Tonya, wherein talking head interviews are opportunities for characters to say, “No, this is how that scene actually happened.” The difference is that it is always the actors in Tonya, whereas Animals brings in the real people to correct the record. Despite what the film says (or doesn’t say), this does not necessarily make the whole endeavor any truer. In fact, it is made clear that memory is not always reliable, and people have reasons to lie. For the perpetrators, then, their presence is an act of penance, allowing them to work through redemption and maybe find forgiveness.

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Layton does not commit to the meta playing-around-with-truth conceit as thoroughly as he could, so his revolutionary style is not 100% engrossing, but it accomplishes a lot in just a few moments. Ultimately, American Animals resolves itself as a fairly typical heist pic in which the crew is made up of in-over-their-head amateurs. One predecessor that springs to mind is Danny Boyle’s controversial Trance, but mostly just for its art world setting and not its psychedelic leanings. A clearer antecedent, in terms of everything falling apart in the end, is Reservoir Dogs, which is name-checked throughout. The boys of American Animals are inspired by cinematic heists, which if they were thinking reasonably should convince them not to attempt their own, as their influences are fictional and often fail anyway. That gets to what this film is really depicting: the foolhardy belief that you can succeed where so many others have failed. Such conviction can lead to happiness, but it can also lead to pain; no matter what, it is always intoxicating.

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Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, Ann Dowd

Director: Bart Layton

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: R for Frustrated Profanity and Panicked Misbehavior

Release Date: June 1, 2018 (Limited)