Six years ago I walked into a theater in Austin,Texas and sat down for a film that would become one of my favorite documentaries of all time. I walked in expecting to hear a story of a missing child and the unexpected results that came when his family found him. But what I witnessed was a film that completely bent the rules of filmmaking and documentary storytelling.

It was a doc that felt like an action thriller. A story that couldn’t possibly be true coming to life in a way never before told. That film was titled The Imposter. The Imposter blurred the lines of narrative and documentary storytelling and every interview, every fact unveiled and every twist was meticulously crafted in a way that would make the greatest action directors of our time jealous. But it was all true. Nothing was embellished. It was truly a documentary created incredibly by director Bart Layton.

So when I found out Layton wrote and directed a narrative film premiering at Sundance I knew I had to see it. That film is American Animals.

If Layton’s first film bent the rules of documentary filmmaking than American Animals completely throws every rule of narrative filmmaking out the door. From the first frame you know exactly what you are in for. Eight words flash on the screen:

THIS IS NOT BASED ON A TRUE STORY

Then the words “Not Based On A” fade from the screen to just leave:

THIS IS TRUE STORY.

In that moment, Layton is clueing you in that everything in this film is fact. Zero Hollywood flare and liberties will be taken and everything you see will be truth.

american animals

American Animals focuses on the true story of four college students orchestrating a heist of several works of art at a Kentucky University. As the film begins we meet the young students portrayed by several of the most promising young actors today, led by Evan Peters and Barry Koeghan.

As the film begins you get the idea you have seen this kind of movie before, something similar to Ocean’s Eleven meets Sugar and Spice. But then Layton completely turns the film upside down when about 15 minutes in the film the real life students show up and begin giving their real life accounts of everything that happened leading up to the day of the robbery.

The use of their interviews makes Americans Animals become a sort of hybrid film. Half documentary half narrative feature.

American Animals works so incredibly well when the real life subjects begin to contradict each other and start to tell two different stories and Layton crafts the narrative story to include both points of view. What is revealed is a movie that is as fascinating as it is exhilarating.

Peters and Koeghan work incredibly well together and the use of the real life robbers and victims of this heist give this film a unique emotional center and the stakes of the film are incredibly heightened.

I have never seen a film like American Animals before. Last year Get Out premiered at Sundance and became a phenomenon. What made that film a classic that will stand the test of time is the fact it created its own genre. It is a thriller, a horror, a comedy and the films director has even called it a documentary because of what it is trying to say.

Is American Animals the next Get Out? Perhaps not, but it definitely is just as inventive and hopefully pioneering.

 

REVIEW OVERVIEW
American Animals
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Nathan is one of HeyUGuys' US correspondents and loves movies. You'll find him at Sundance Film Festival on an annual basis watching and reviewing movies before most others.