English filmmaker Bart Layton made a bit of a splash with his 2012 documentary The Imposter, which related the tale of a French man who fraudulently claimed to be the missing son of a Texas woman. Layton has now returned to similar ground with his latest film, not a documentary this time but a dramatization of true-life events, American Animals. Both films contain more than a little bit of similar DNA in that each tale revels in the generally risible and ridiculous nature of life in these United States. It’s the sort of thing that one would not be inclined to believe were it not true. The truth is said to be stranger than fiction and American Animals is a perfect example of that old adage.

I should mention that the fact that this is based on a true tale should not lead anyone to believe that dramatic license wasn’t taken with the telling of events. We’re alerted to this right from the outset with a title card that clearly says this is not a true story, only to have the ‘not a’ part of the sentence disappear immediately. One would infer that parts of this are true but, likely, there’s a bit of embellishment going on during the proceedings. That’s okay because it’s gripping and interesting enough, especially during the last hour, that I’d be inclined to recommend it regardless of the origins of the source material from which it sprang.

Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen were four college age boys coming of age in rural Kentucky in the early part of 2004. Wanting to do something unique with their lives, they seized upon the idea of carrying out a heist wherein the prize would be not money but some of the most valuable and rare books in these United States. The plan, of course, is to pose as knowledgeable book dealers online and sell to those willing to pay the highest amount of money.  In theory, it sounded like a good idea until the foursome attempt to loot the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. And that’s where complications set in and the film’s best moments occur. 

American Animals is structured much in the same vein as last year’s awards contender, the true crime docudrama ripped from the headlines, I, Tonya. It cuts back and forth between the actors portraying the characters and the real participants themselves as they relate the ins, outs and what have yous of the actual heist. It’s a novel approach that carries the film across some formulaic ground in the first half before things take off in a splendid way during the final half. 

American Animals is the kind of film where the less you know about it the more you’re likely to enjoy it as its serpentine tale unfolds. I, for one, found it to be a nice example of what’s commonly known as summer counter-programming.

Photo: College age thieves dressed to swindle in American Animals

Questions or comments? Write Adam at [email protected].