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The question of who might be trustworthy is a constant point of contention in Bart Layton’s vision in the 2018 film “American Animals.” Can we trust the characters? Can we trust the real people involved in the real situation? Can we even trust ourselves as viewers? Layton creates a world mimicking that of a dream that goes beyond the idea of “zero boundaries” between what is real and what is not. As viewers, the audience points its sympathy and wrath in different directions throughout the interwoven fiction and reality. To go on the journey of “American Animals” is to rarely, if ever, be certain who is “right” and who is “wrong.”
The film is based on real-life events. A group of college students at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, plans a heist to steal extremely valuable books from the library at the university. We see them plan, meet with outside buyers, fantasize about their ideal outcomes, and eventually see what actually occurs and its aftermath.
While the majority of the film focuses on the planning of the robbery, when the moment arises for the actual event, the film quickly changes hats to that of a thriller. The experience of watching the anxiety and the expectations of these undeniably human characters crumble the second their big plan is supposed to become reality caused physical reactions in audience members at this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival. Shifting in seats, hands over mouths and eyes, and any other reaction one might have to observing abnormal heights of anxiety were all present. The experience of seeing the film on a small screen at home may be similar given the meticulous pacing of this film, but a dark room full of strangers certainly adds to this beautiful shared discomfort.
The idea of the unreliable narrator is certainly not new to the world of cinematic storytelling. What “American Animals” does a bit differently, though, is not only do we have the fictionalized versions of the real people involved, but the audience is made privy to interviews with the members of this gang of would-be thieves. The statements from these real men become a sort of commentary on their past actions, as well as a looming presence over their past selves. The characters cannot seem to agree on specific details of even the most basic occurrences and the real men cannot even agree with their fictional selves.
Since the film is told from the point of view of the criminals, we as viewers find it only natural to view them as the heroes of the film. Every so often, though, we are reminded these are people actually committing a crime that, while is not necessarily violent in nature, is going to affect the lives of people in potentially horrific ways. When those moments of “oh, these aren’t the good guys in this scenario” occur, actual sounds of quiet horror or sympathy for the other people in this world can be heard throughout the theater. So, again, even the minds of the audience cannot really be trusted to make proper judgments of what’s actually happening. Layton takes us a bit beyond the idea of the antihero and into a slightly different area of simply that heroes or antiheros are not necessary to create a compelling story. The reflection of the experience after watching the film in its entirety may even be more fascinating that the film itself.
The two men who were the ringleaders in this crime never seem to have an answer as to why they did it other than just to see if they really could. Sure they had an idea they would make money, but in reality it was more just to see if they could do it and a way to curb boredom. The film offers no explanation beyond this and neither do its participants. There is no apparent moral and there is no resolution. We do not get that moment of relief where everyone is friends again. In the end, it’s a smartly crafted, entertaining film about real people that leaves the audience asking infinite questions.