SXSW 2018: AMERICAN ANIMALS Blurs Fact/Fiction, Thrills/Laughs

A bold and unique viewing experience

The 2018 edition of the SXSW Conference and Festivals is here, and the Cinapse team is on the ground, covering all things film.

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Very little has stuck in my mind from director Bart Layton’s 2012 documentary The Imposter beyond the fact that it effectively blurred the lines between doc and narrative. It was effective if not revolutionary.

American Animals takes the tinkering of Layton’s previous blurring of lines and elevates it into a hugely successful and innovative film that feels like little else that’s ever been done before. So much of the art of documentary filmmaking has to do with finding the right subject matter that will turn into something compelling, and then editing what you’ve captured into something that stands out. Layton found charismatic and slightly tragic subjects here with a retelling of a modern crime that took place on a college campus in Kentucky. Our real life interviewees, however, are just a small piece of this work of art. Far more than any type of “dramatized recreation,” American Animals leans more heavily into being a highly stylized narrative. Phenomenal in their lead roles, Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan absolutely soar as entitled/white (but filled with longing) students who push one another from college prank to violent crime.

Layton creates an experience that’s simply unlike anything that’s come before it. Equal parts hilarious and gut wrenching, the laughs and the tragedy ooze through both the narrative and documentary elements of the film. Also: those elements themselves bleed together in inventive ways. On occasion our doc subjects and their onscreen actors are interacting with one another. Or sometimes differing recollections of true events will result in hilarious edits that take our characters from one setting to another, and back again. Layton exhibits a total control over the way he wants to tell his story, and a breathtaking confidence to derive both laughs and gut punching emotion from this breakneck style of cutting between narrative and interview footage.

Then there’s the relevance of the themes behind the plotting and style. We’re treated to a film that’s one part hilarious send up of the heist film, sure. But we’re also confronted with some seemingly “normal” young upper-middle-class white men who appear to commit a crime out of little more motivation than ennui. These young white males are what our media and culture hold up as “safe.” They’re the norm. But while their lives are shown to be otherwise healthy and wholesome, something within them pushed them to commit this ridiculous crime. American Animals is comfortable exploring that dilemma and does not shy away from the pain that this “heist” inflicted upon the young men’s victims.

With a dynamite up and coming cast, brilliant visuals, a stress-inducing score/soundtrack, and the aforementioned interplay (“play” being the operative word there) between fact and fiction, Bart Layton and his team have crafted a unique beast with this Animal.

And I’m Out.

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