American Animals, the newest love project of film-maker and documentarian Bart Layton (who’s 2012 film The Imposter fundamentally reshaped the way that I consume documentaries), is the most finely edited production I have seen all year, and possibly the best film of the year. While the film has a fine cast, with the likes of Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan absolutely dominating the screen, the most creative and powerful element of the production is the use of the actual students who orchestrated the dangerous caper. Interspersed throughout the film are conversations with the real boys (now men) as they recount the events of that year, and specifically the heist. Beyond that, on more than one occasion, the real boys and their actor counterparts interact with one another.
These scenes, where the boys and the actors converse on the present state of their situation or the interpretation of events, are fascinating narrative techniques to explore the subjectivity and fallibility of memory. The use of creative narrative techniques is what makes an otherwise interesting story and adds that little bit of spice. It’s powerful, brutal, and genuine, and helps to foster the decidedly complex capabilities of film as a storytelling medium.
Based On A True Story has become somewhat of a running joke in the film community because of the blasé and haphazard usage of the subtitle. Nearly every horror movie adds the disclaimer to the marketing material and etches it onto the beginning of the film. The Blair Witch Project is one of the more famous examples of the disclaimer adding weight to the screening experience. The mystery of “This is real? How had I never heard of it?” and the sheer terror of believing that real people went through an absolutely bone-chilling experience lends credence to the horror. Fargo also utilized the Based On A True Story disclaimer to make the viewing experience that much more deeply and profoundly uncomfortable. Now, just about any film can get a Based On A True Story sticker smeared on like a pungent, foul paste. This perversion has helped, in some sense, to create a more perceptive audience than those of the 90’s and early 2000’s. What was once met with “This is real?” is now met with “This isn’t real.” Even when films do, rightfully, deserve the disclaimer of Based On A True Story, audiences are not as easily susceptible to the trickery of marketing and PR departments and the hyperbolic lens which some films use to filter the real events, look no further than Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain.
American Animals is than placed in a difficult position. Does the film become a straight documentary with Morrisesque recreations and re-enactments intermittently cut throughout the film, or is it a re-enactment with the audience placing faith in the filmmaker to fairly and accurately distill the actual events into an engaging story? Both are fair play, and both have been handled well in other films. But, American Animals opts for a brilliant, blended viewing experience, occasionally breaking up the action of the film to engage with a running interview with the parents and criminals. It’s a great reality check for the audience, especially as the intensity ramps up towards the end of the second act, and we see these “characters” make horrible, life-altering decisions, and cut to the real boys. There is a sincere level of embarrassment (alongside a whole slew of emotions) that an audience member confronts on the cut back to the real boys. You almost wish that you could leap through the screen, into the recreational world that has been created, to tell these characters to stop what they’re doing. To stop before they become like the guys we’ve seen!
There is a mixture of hope and inevitability that is constantly in conflict with one another to create an uneasy viewing experience. Sometimes these boys are so close to stopping the heist, from giving up entirely and going home, but we know that it isn’t true. That it very much can’t be that way. And, it is that very conflict, that very internal struggle, manifested externally in the film, that made this one of the most unique and engaging films I have ever seen. It broadened, in a very earnest and powerful way, what I thought film was capable of.
So, let’s take a quick look at what I mean by the editing empowering the story, and the full capabilities of the film-makers toolbox in action.
This scene did not need to be told in this manner. It could have very simply been either the balcony or the car. Yet, the film-makers decided to use this opportunity to non-verbally communicate this battle between Spenser and Warren. It communicates to us, using pans, cuts, and seamless transitions, that there is an unspoken tension between these two characters.
That’s an effective way of using more than simple dialogue and verbal cues to create tension, build character, and progress the plot.
And, even if you didn’t notice it, your brain did.
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