Bart Layton’s first feature is a combination between heist movie and documentary, giving a real edge to a tired genre.
Closing-night film of Film4’s Summer Screen series at Somerset House in London was American Animals, writer-director Bart Layton’s first narrative feature, which melds his previous work as a documentarian with the kind of stylised heist picture crafted from the Usual Suspects mould.
The film depicts the after-effects of a botched heist on those who perpetrated it, reflecting on the events in real life as the narrative is played out by a first-rate cast of actors. It’s a genuine think piece: how is it that comparatively affluent young men would nigh-on destroy their lives to perpetrate a robbery that they genuinely did not need to undertake?
It packs an emotional wallop in that the players in this botched caper have, in the ensuing 13 years, developed an all but profound sense of regret for their actions and the kind of emotional damage they inflicted; upon themselves, their loved ones, and the poor librarian who got caught in the crossfire.
Stylistically, Layton has a keen ear for dialogue; his characters, while drawn from real life, have enough creative license of their own and are aided by a quartet of first-rate performances from his cast. Barry Keoghan, first among equals here, manages to bring his most unique screen presence to his role; his Spencer is equally curious, ambitious and conflicted, and Keoghan plays it all brilliantly. Evan Peters is also great, playing the seriously unhinged Warren with aplomb. Part of Layton’s genius in his film’s structure is to intercut the narrative with the real life players reflecting on the events years after the fact – to see the real life Warren and Spencer being able to share their hindsight adds a degree of impetus to the proceedings that could have taken a simple tale of a dumb criminal plan that goes awry into something that verges on a tragedy.
I like what I see here; there is, in Layton as a helmer or auteur, room for tremendous potential in the future. In American Animals we have a hybrid of genres which pulls off the near-impossible, in fusing documentary with the thriller in a way that’s seamless and occasionally breathtaking. While his influences are clearly on his sleeve (Tarantino, Scorsese), this is nothing to be scoffed at – why not borrow from the best?