2018, Movies

American Animals (2018, Bart Layton)

Perhaps my most common complaint about documentaries is that, stylistically, most of them are more or less the same. One thing I get frustrated about when it comes to films “based on a true story” is how readily they deviate from the true story for narrative purposes. This ambitious, entertaining film tries to be both a documentary and a “based on a true story” narrative film.

This film is part of a subgenre of film that freely blends documentary – there are interviews with real people – with constructed narrative – there are professional actors playing those real people – which doesn’t fit into either documentary or fiction. (Not all the interviewees aren’t actors, to make things even more confusing.) It avoids many of the problems with this subgenre by almost immediately acknowledging that even the interviewees may not be telling the whole truth. The film claims its a true story but not longer after has something change on screen based on the inability of a member of the gang to remember a detail. This is a good tactic because the easiest charge against films of this type is that they are making stuff up. And

The film is highly stylized and quite creative. I didn’t love all the artsy shots – I am particularly nitpicky about upside down camera – but I thought some of them were quite cool. A lot of thought went into trying to film this story in a creative way, in a way that wasn’t a conventional docudrama. I appreciate that.

The story is compelling and it actually mostly works having the actual people acting as commentators on the action. This is a wild heist that I had heard nothing about. Given how it unfolds, I suggest you learn nothing about it either. It’s the rare heist film that feels really close to how things would happen in real life, I guess because it’s based on a real heist. It’s also cool how they manage a reveal despite seeming to mostly be giving you the full story.

It mostly deftly walks the line, between trying to accurately portray what happened and being a compelling heist movie. It’s also occasionally quite funny. It’s mostly really impressive.

My biggest quibble comes down to the stylization, less so the trick camera shots (though some of them) and more so the montages and basically any scene that doesn’t have dialogue. That’s where the film loses me and it contains a fair amount of fat here. I was hovering back and forth on my rating, because I do think the film is pretty impressive and admire this ambition but the climactic comeuppance feels really clunky and it leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.

7/10 but I thought about higher.

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