American Animals, opening this week, isn’t just a new movie, but a new kind of movie. Written and directed by Bart Layton, whose 2012 documentary The Imposter garnered near-universal acclaim and seemed to set a new standard for visual composition in documentary filmmaking, American Animals is Layton’s non-documentary debut feature.
I use “non-documentary” carefully, because while in many ways American Animals is a traditional heist movie, “fiction” isn’t quite right. Where I, Tonya depicted its characters occasionally looking into the camera to say “this never happened,” as a way to convey the disputed nature of some of the events the movie depicts (giving itself license to depict the juicier parts, even if they may not have happened), American Animals does them one better. Layton’s film uses the real people being played by the actors, sometimes in traditional talking-head interview form, other times sharing scenes and dialogue with the actors playing them. And in this case it’s not just to be post-modern or bend genres, it seems to be an honest attempt to reclaim the true meaning of “this is a true story” or “based on a true story.”
So many movies, from horror movies about ghosts and demonic possession to more traditional biopic-style prestige movies like The Post or Argo, have stretched the idea of the true story to the point that the label has become almost meaningless. Some films, from I, Tonya to Selma, have occasionally flirted with mixing stock footage and research with traditional fictional film techniques. But American Animals feels like the first movie maybe since American Splendor to mix the two in novel ways. And in this case, to do so with the purpose of actually exploring what truth is.
“I certainly feel like audiences now are so sophisticated and literate and understand what the game is in terms of how stories get fictionalized,” Layton told Uproxx. “I think there were a lot of people who read the script and go, ‘Why are you throwing me out of the movie?’ [with the interviews] ‘I’m just in with these characters. Leave me in there.’
“And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, but that’s the whole point.’ I want you to be thrown out of the movie momentarily. I want you to be constantly grabbed by the lapels and shaken and going, ‘Don’t forget this is a true story.’ You should have more skin in the game. You should feel more connected, and more worried about the outcome because it’s real rather than, ‘Oh, it doesn’t affect me. It’s a movie, it’s a bunch of actors.'”