I was fortunate enough to see American Animals earlier this year at Sundance, and aside from reading a quick synopsis, I knew almost nothing about it. I did, however, know of Bart Layton’s directorial debut, The Imposter (2012), the shockingly strange and cerebral documentary chronicling the man who pretended to be a family’s missing son returned home. From the very start of American Animals, the idea of “truth” is manipulated. Text appears and tells us that the film is not a true story, and then immediately the word “not” disappears, and we’re left questioning everything that follows. Of course, the story itself will be familiar to those who remember the true crime on which the film is based.
In 2004, four college students attempted to pull off one of the most ambitious heists: stealing the first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, four large folios of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, and two other rare manuscripts from the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University. Evan Peters portrays Warren Lipka, the capricious and unstable ringleader of the heist. Barry Keoghan (who has perhaps one of the more exciting careers of the past year) plays Spencer Reinhard, Lipka’s childhood friend, and the true protagonist of the film.
The film is undeniably a fiction film. Facts are exaggerated or altered altogether, which isn’t unusual for the “based on a true story” genre. Where American Animals individualizes itself, however is in its use of documentary elements throughout the fictionalized retelling. All four of the real men who committed the act fourteen years ago participate in the construction of the story by way of narration and interviews. Unsurprisingly, the minute details of the heist in American Animals change between each of the participants’ retelling. This in turn changes the “fictional” segments of the movie. We often go back in order to re-experience specific moments in different ways in a possible attempt to examine the instability of memory.
It is in this way that I find the format of this film to be so successful. Though one could easily argue that its vision and ultimate message are convoluted through the constant change of pace and genre, it is within these complicated layers of storytelling that the film is able to attain what seems to be its overarching goal—representing the fallacious nature of truth in documentaries. Though the film is scarcely reminiscent of Errol Morris’s iconic Thin Blue Line, American Animals does not shy away from embracing similar methods to make its point. We often circle back to the event in question, each time seeing it slightly differently.
Those who should ostensibly know the event best (that is, those who committed the crime) are often the least convincing. Contrary to the mainstream notion that what’s presented in a documentary must, on some level, contain a pure representation of truth, this film melds its genres as a way of rightly pointing to the fact that truth in documentaries is just not attainable, at least not in the traditional sense. Opinions will always be skewed, and often times the closer you are to the event, the further you can stray from the truth. Layton also does not seem to claim any objectivity in his direction, as many documentary filmmakers inevitably do. Layton seems to come along for the ride alongside us as he too tries to piece together the confounding and fascinating fabric that makes up both the real heist and the difficulties of trying to make a film about it.
American Animals opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.