While Layton can’t help but leave the viewer with a somewhat icky feeling, he at least packages it around a highly entertaining film. Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan star as the two ‘masterminds,’ eventually bringing in Jared Abrahamson’s and Blake Jenner’s characters to fill out the crew. While Abrahamson was an unknown to this viewer, Peters, Keoghan, and Jenner are up-and-comers, particularly Keoghan after his masterful and revelatory turn in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Though they all play callow and uninvestigated men, their chemistry together crackles with energy as they prod each other towards dumber and dumber ends. Their idiocy extends to all facets of their plan, including the inclusion of Reservoir Dogs, a film about a disastrously failed heist, in how they give themselves code names. To accentuate how stunted they are, Peters’ Warren Lipka names himself Mr. Yellow because he’s mommy’s sunshine. That kind of filtering of their lives through pop culture extends to their imagining of the heist itself, a balletic Ocean’s 11-style caper in Warren’s mind that is not the way it goes down in actuality.
To Layton’s credit, he views the character’s antics as folly, though there again is the decision to include the real men in the film. Either way, the writer/director doesn’t contrive some sick relative that they need the money for, or a bad home life that they’re lashing out against. These men have no problems beyond aimlessness. Warren doesn’t want to continue on his academic scholarship, aspiring artist Spencer (Keoghan) wants to go through something so he’ll paint good, future accountant Eric (Abrahamson) has been dulled to misconduct by his corrupt exemplars at Enron and Arthur Anderson, and Jenner’s Chas (of course that’s his name) is a fitness-obsessed dullard who barely needs convincing. Only people with so much could so cavalierly throw it all away. Layton decisively pops their bubble once we get to the actual heist, a tragedy of errors filled with shrieks, tears, and the dignified panic of the ever-reliabel Ann Dowd as the chief librarian. Despite their certainty, the world will not submit to their desires just because it seems to have done so for the first decades of their lives.
The prime object of the crime is John James Audobon’s book, The Birds of America. Layton lovingly runs his camera over the pages, capturing the minute detail with which Audobon drew his magnificent specimens. Dowd’s character describes its creation as another act of privilege, the son of a wealthy landowner heading into the wilderness for years to document the avian life of a young country. At least Audobon used his status to make something exquisite. Conversely, Warren and Spencer get the idea for their heist while they watch teens light shopping carts on fire, and Spencer commits to it when, back in his dorm, he sees his roommate watch a video of a guy Tasering himself. The only beauty in this world is behind glass in an ill-trafficked library exhibit, and grand accomplishments are only conceived as theft from the past.
Layton makes the fallen nature of American Animals apparent in these and other details. This is enough for a well-made, delightfully skewed, anti-heroic film, but he returns to his Imposter well unnecessarily. One can’t help but feel that he’s making the world a little uglier by shining what vaguely resembles a redemptive spotlight on four morons to satisfy his pet interests. The film about the heist and the clumsy, comic uselessness of its entitled perpetrators is enough. Michael Bay, no genius of empathic filmmaking, saw fit to exclude the surviving criminal from his idiots-commit-crimes film Pain and Gain. Of all directors to take a lesson from, Bay is an unlikely one. C+