WHAT does it mean to have a special life?
Is it to rebel against your conventional upbringing? To push back against a normal job, a house in the suburbs, a station wagon and a gym membership?
Is to yearn for something significant to happen to you, to give you an extraordinary story to tell?
There are eons of people, young and old, chasing some kind of fame and notoriety by putting themselves out on social media, uploading videos and pictures on YouTube and Instagram, hoping someone will notice them for being more than one of the pack.
For four middle-class white college boys in 2004, before Justin Bieber, before influencers, being special meant something different, a story told in gripping style in the film American Animals.
The film takes a real-life story and transforms it into one of the most impressive movies 2018 has thrown up so far.
Decked out in old-man disguises, musty wigs, oversized trenchcoats and theatre makeup, they set out to rob Kentucky’s Transylvania University library’s Special Collection of its rare books, including a first edition of John James Audubon’s Birds Of America. All up, the take was $750,000.
Art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) wants to have so-called real experiences that he can use in his art, like Monet and van Gogh. So like van Gogh did with that gun in the final moments of his life, Spencer decides to set his life on fire, though, presumably, he didn’t know it yet.
After a tour of the library in which he notices the only thing standing between anyone and those valuable books is a lone librarian, he mentions it to friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a disaffected student on an athletics scholarship.
That throwaway line is the genesis of 18 months of elaborate scheming, meeting potential fences in Amsterdam and the recruitment of two others, FBI aspirant Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner).
Whenever it seems the harebrained idea would be called off, it isn’t, and what started off as a schoolboy fantasy born partly out of watching Ocean’s Eleven and film noir flicks is suddenly very real.
The suspenseful heist sequence is directed with confidence, the frantic camera movements, fast editing and great performances selling the confusion and regret laced through the moments.
Directed by Brit Bart Layton (The Imposter), American Animals is a thrilling, captivating film that examines the idea of wanting to be something special, of abandoning a prescribed path of privilege, and of being blind to that privilege.
If Layton had chosen to make the movie as purely a dramatisation, it would be effective and satisfying. But what makes it more than that is his innovative hybrid model of merging the drama with documentary conventions.
American Animals cuts in pieces-to-camera of the real Reinhard, Lipka, Borsuk and Allen, whose testimonials give the story a serious undertone — it happened, these people did it.
But it’s not just in the testimonials, Layton sometimes inserts the real-life counterparts into the scenes with actors so Evan Peters would be sitting next to the actual Lipka in the car as the older, real man ponders, silently, how that particular moment of youthful folly destroyed his future.
That kind of fourth-wall break is a gutsy technique that could have gone wrong — taking you out of the movie — but instead it grounds the caper with gravity. It’s an experiment in authorship, the fallibility of memory and retrospection, one that the film pulls off sensationally.
Layton handles the transitions between the documentary and drama with prodigious skill and it never feels like an extended episode of America’s Most Wanted.
American Animals is a different kind of movie, a truly electrifying story with purpose and meaning but one that has also given us a new form of storytelling.
American Animals is in cinemas now.