American Animals begins with a chest-thumping set of title cards: "This is not based on a true story; this is a true story." You could argue that it's just a matter of semantics, but that's not the point. The statement itself is irrelevant. It's just a way of marking territory, of adding a dash of self-conscious bravado to a familiar genre, the way a trendy diner might try to make a name for itself by declaring that its product is "not your father's" [insert extremely common menu item here].
The first dramatic film from British documentarian Bart Layton, American Animals reenact a 2004 incident in which four young men in Lexington, Kentucky, attempted to steal a few valuable books from the rare book room at nearby Transylvania University. Guided mostly by whatever knowledge they could glean from The Usual Suspects and The Killing, they studied the location, made tentative contacts with a prospective buyer in the Netherlands and finalized a scheme that could be summed up as follows: Run in, grab books, run out.
Layton doesn't waste much time in introducing his gimmick, which inserts interviews with the real would-be criminal masterminds into the film to comment on the action and offer contradictory accounts of their plotting. It's a narrative trick that unfortunately never rises above the level of a flashy stunt, with the additional disadvantage of deflating any attempts at suspense: If the robbers are to all appearances alive and healthy, we know nothing particularly bad is going to happen to them.
Most of American Animals' staged portions show little more than four kids indulging in an under-developed fantasy, lazy play-acting in a pseudo-Tarantinoesque vein. Evan Peters brings a level of intensity to his role — he recalls a younger Michael Shannon — and Irish actor Barry Keoghan repeats his slow-witted American portrayal from The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but the performances are inevitably overshadowed by their real-world doppelgangers, reducing the dramatized portions to a kind of half-hearted game, an episode of Unsolved Mysteries with a patronizing wink at the material. The characters go through the motions and drop the predictable cultural references — choosing the red pill or the blue pill, borrowing names from Reservoir Dogs, with one of the gang pretended to be offended at having to be Mr. Pink — but they fall flat.
It doesn't take long to figure out that the real scheme behind American Animals is less about nabbing a copy of Birds of America and more a flashy attempt to prevent the viewer from noticing its flimsy foundation. Layton employs familiar tricks like kinetic editing and split-screen effects solely for short-term impact, plus a soundtrack built on collective nostalgia (why are all the songs from the '60s and '70s, before any of the characters were even born?), but they seem lazy, even obligatory.
Its knowledge of its crime film ancestors notwithstanding, American Animals is ultimately undone by its real-life gimmick, which proves more show than substance. Layton constantly reminds the viewer of the true-story background — we see one character exchange a note with a dark-haired man, then replay the scene differently when his real counterpart recalls that the man had white hair — but it's hard to see it as anything more than a kind of narrative parlor trick.
Sometimes, Layton simply cuts in shots of the actual thieves as silent, self-conscious reaction shots. We see Keoghan driving past his real-life counterpart, as if the 2018 version is silently consenting to the actions of his 2004 alter ego. Are we supposed to share the distanced perspective of the 2018 man, or acknowledge that the 2004 version is merely a charade? Layton's not interested in the implications of his meta-fictional game; he's just showing off. Rather than inviting the members of the real "Transy Heist" gang to share their perspectives, they're simply put on display, never controlling their story but merely consenting to their cinematic use.