"This is not based on a true story – this is a true story." Such are the words American Animals opens with courtesy of a simple yet effective editing trick, moments before Bart Layton's semi-fictionalised foray into one of America's most bizarre criminal cases barrels headlong into the action - and in almost all regards they're exactly right, a perfect indicator of what lies ahead.
Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is an aspiring artist at Kentucky's Transylvania, mired in a state of listlessness as he yearns for something exhilarating, even tragic, to occur to inspire him. While perusing the university's collections section within its library, he comes upon rare copies of Darwin's On the Origin of the Species - the book from which the film derives its name - and Audubon's Birds of America. Enticed by the gains he could make from such an endeavor, Spencer conspires with Warren Lipka, a passionate, outspoken and rebellious friend and student at the university on an athletic scholarship, to steal the aforementioned publications and others and sell them to a supposed buyer in the Netherlands. What follows is a sometimes-humorous, certainly mostly accurate and ultimately harrowing account of a truly strange American crime story, and the marked effect it had on those involved, balancing a quasi-fictional depiction with face-to-face interviews with the men involved in the actual heist back in 2004 and those related to them, seamlessly interwoven into the overarching narrative in a sequence of events that hearkens back to Layton's career in documentaries, both 2012's The Imposter and his assorted TV work.
Perhaps because of being directed by a man whose career is steeped in such work, the editing, not the acting, is the first immediately noticeable aspect of this feature. American Animals is one of the most tightly and precisely-edited films to grace the silver screen in years. The action, where it exists, is cut impeccably to maintain a palpable sense of effective speed and tension, the various and often conflicting accounts that the real perpetrators give are accounted for - down to questioning the appearance of the go-between for an Amsterdam-based fence that Warren meets in New York - and even inserting the real-life individuals into scenes within the film proper. The result is a film that never dallies, devoting just enough time to every important beat with faultless precision to convey its message and head from A to B concisely and without any added frippery. Through this editing, too, the lines are blurred, lending an air of ambiguity and surrealism that serves to make American Animals stand out from its contemporaries.
The cast is far from overshadowed by this, regardless. Evan Peters stands out even above Keoghan as the effervescent, contumacious spitfire that is Warren Lipka, whose outlook on life is immediately made abundantly apparent from the first major scene he stars in, Johnny Thunder's 'I'm Alive' blaring almost triumphantly as he and Spencer make off with stolen meat. A man who wears his heart on his sleeve, his influence on the other three is undeniably poisonous at times, if mostly unintentionally so, but his desire to break away from society's expectations of him is true and evident in almost every noteworthy moment he features in, from his disdain towards educational institutions to constantly and earnestly reminding Spencer that life is nothing without some degree of risk-taking. Even in the heat of the moment, he proves sympathetic, and Peters' performance is on-point throughout. Keoghan shines similarly as Spencer, his routinely and almost deliberate monotonous and level delivery mirroring the suffocating ennui that Spencer finds himself mired in and the burning desire to grant his life meaning, while vacillating between active participant and the proverbial angel on Warren's shoulder - to a point, at least, before Abrahamson's Eric Borsuk and Blake Jenner's Chas Allen find themselves recruited in Lipka's audacious scheme.
More than anything else, however, American Animals reminds us of the human cost, physically and mentally, in circumstances such as these. In an almost lethally sharp and wonderfully parodical contrast to what eventually transpires, Warren weaves a hypothetical scenario in his head during the early stages of planning the operation, a cocksure and confident send-up to the crime classics of old constructed from Warren's colourful imagination and a heavy diet of crime features as 'educational' material. When the harsh reality of their actions sets in, the film spares no expense in detailing how harrowing the experience is for all parties involved, particularly with Chas and Eric who serve as the group's rough equivalent of moral anchors in different respects. With hardened criminals, the circumstances may have been different - but the film takes it to heart that, at the time, these were men on the cusp of adulthood, in the prime of their youth and yearning for their lives to have substance. The film does not openly pick any side when it comes to the fallout of the events, but as much room as there is for blame, there is room for sympathy in equal measure.
It is in analysing this human cost that American Animals truly excels. While the film itself remains superficially impartial to the action that Warren and his cohorts committed and the people involved show all too readily that they regret their past misdeeds, both the fictionalised depictions of the culprits and the men actually responsible give keen and cutting insights into their outlook ahead of the heist, an acute sense of rudderlessness, desperation and a desire to rebel against the crushing monotony that defines their daily lives that is bound to resonate with at least some of today's youth as a factor that is understandable - even, in a sense, commendable. Warren embodies this outwardly, repeatedly and vociferously urging Spencer to forge ahead while espousing his philosophy at every opportunity that presents itself, both when railing against academic institutions and reminding his companions of what they stand to gain. He is poisonous, in relational terms, but genuinely desperate to define the nature of his existence on his own terms rather than stay the same unfulfilling course. Even the real Chas and Eric admit that they felt a kinship with him in that regard, to some extent.
It is the soft-spoken, withdrawn and sometimes reluctant Spencer, however, that lays it out the heaviest, serving as the capstone for the film's enduring question as to why these millennial men, privileged and intelligent, turned to apathy, and from apathy to crime. The real him explains that as an artist, his view of the world was already different from others, that he was searching fervently for something more to give purpose to his existence - and this makes the semi-fictional Spencer all too aware of how oppressive and unyielding life can sometimes be, how all the thoughts of success and specialness fade into oblivion when faced with the hollow sameness of the day-to-day. A conversation he holds with Warren ends with him posing a query - that if Warren ever got the feeling that if he's waiting for something to happen, clueless as to what it might be, that could transform his life into something special.
"Like what?", Warren responds, as much an answer as it is a question.
"Exactly", Spencer intones with flat, almost defeated finality. "Like what?"