“There’s probably a lot that I embellished but not that much that I fabricated.”

Bart Layton’s new film, based on the remarkable true story of a group of young men and their plan to heist some of the most valuable books in existence… wait, scrap that. This isn’t based on a true story, this IS a true story, as we are told by the opening titles. Containing flourishes that fairly accompany each and every dramatic retelling, American Animals could have done a lot better if it had lent that much more credence to those present and ever-willing to tell it word for word.

Speaking at the first non-American public screening at the Sydney Film Festival, Layton’s “weird hybrid” of documentary and drama questions if there’s “another way of telling a true story that isn’t one or another, a kind of crossbreed.” Adding that “to make it as a straight fictional version of this would have been fun but it wouldn’t have been anything more relevant than that,” the fusion of a semi-fictionalized account and interviews interspersed throughout with those responsible and their loved ones is indeed a novelly intriguing way to tell a story. It’s just that they got the balance wrong.

Recounting the planning, heist and ensuing events, American Animals deserves credit for being that rare heist film which places the emphasis on the mundane yet undeniably significant aspects of planning a robbery. Ala the heavily underrated Sneakers, Layton takes us through these events and, in the film’s far and above best albeit unfortunately brief fictionalized scene outlines the varying impacts on each accomplice.

Starring Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and featuring detailed interviews with their real-life equivalents, there is not a single one of these four interview subjects who is less engaging or enigmatic than whomever is depicting them. The character of these interviews and the light they shed on their acts invites not unreasonable speculation as to why they weren’t given a greater berth in the film, or why the fraction of time they are proffered compared to the heft granted Keoghan and co was not more measured or even reversed.

There are sparing moments where the two forms interact; one is a stand-out scene in a petrol station where a perpetrator interacts with a real-life counterpart. In another and American Animals’ most memorable scene, we are treated to the inspiration for the film’s main character looking on as the gang head towards the scene of the crime. Neglecting to include more of these fascinating moments throughout or otherwise fuse these worlds further was a regretfully missed opportunity.

Shedding light on some of these creative decisions, Layton added that “I wouldn’t let the actors spend time with the real guys even though they wanted to.” It shows. Commenting that he “wanted to let the actors find their own versions of the characters based on the script,” the evident disconnect in tone and cognisance between the performers’ output for the most part and that otherwise on display from their stated inspirations is incessantly distracting.

Worse still, some of the more interesting facets of and that which contributed to this chosen style are markedly wanting. The real Spencer, who “did pretty much all of the artworks in the movie” and is evidently obsessed with art, as we are momentarily informed at the conclusion chooses to paint subjects of a particular nature. The importance of this to the narrative and the especial items he chose to steal is of paramount significance; teasing this and only in passing at the beginning and end of the story is but one avenue the filmmakers touch on yet distinctly fail to explore.

Suggesting throughout alternate and more compelling routes for this film to have taken, as with its central exploit American Animals is an uncommon creative adventure with in-built intrigue which serves up as much as anything else a cautionary tale.

American Animals had it’s Australian Premiere at the Sydney Film Festival

American Animals on Film Fight Club