By Bryce Cross, E23 Reporter

If we’re being truthful to ourselves, many of us have imagined – daydreamed even – of pulling off the perfect heist, and why wouldn’t we? Cinema has idealized heists, glorified both the failed and fortunate attempts and walked audiences through detailed, sometimes outlandish plans step-by-step. When watching our most beloved characters (or our most hated), how are we supposed to know what works and what doesn’t?

Bart Layton’s narrative-meets-documentary film “American Animals, works amazingly well as an enjoyable, yet sobering heist film, stripping away the glory and glamour to reveal the ugly truth.

Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton, known for his successful and riveting 2012 documentary “The Imposter,” again tells the story of a nearly unbelievable crime set in the U.S. The 2004 “Transy Book Heist” —  in which four students attempted a theft worth millions from their own university’s library — works perfectly for Layton to cover. Taking cues from bits and pieces of the heist genre and combining them with his own bold filmmaking style, he creates a captivating film from beginning to end.

As the film opens, it announces that “This Is” and “This is Not Based on a True Story” and follows with imagery of young men disguising themselves to appear older. It becomes immediately clear that the film has an unorthodox approach to the usual narrative documentary format.

The narration, similar to Layton’s “The Imposter, is provided by the real-life men involved in the heist itself — with the catch being that each of their perspectives clash and conflict. Now years removed from the event, the criminals — Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen — tweak and twist the film’s dramatization of the heist. Rather than prove the authenticity of the story, Layton purposefully plays with the inaccuracies presented in their interviews. They don’t always line up with the story that is enacted by their counterparts (played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner) in the film’s dramatic retelling, which is designed to cause doubt amongst the audience.

The heist is sparked when Transylvania University students Reinhard and Lipka find themselves aimless, unsure of what they want to do with their lives, yet yearning to do something great. Reinhard is quickly influenced by Lipka in slipping a few books out of the university library to sell them. They just happen to be some of the rarest and most valuable on campus. From there, Layton’s bold style shows in spades as the story becomes reminiscent of films like “Ocean’s Eleven,” with blaring jazz music, slick camerawork and well-done use of shadows and framing. However, as the boys become cockier, roping in fellow students Borsuk and Allen as accomplices to their scheme, things become more dangerous and risky as the boys improvise to stay under the radar.

For half of “American Animals, everything is electric – charged with a fun, unbridled sense of excitement, tension and even slapstick comedy. However, when the boys realize they may be absurdly out of their depth (despite their preparation and convincing costumes), the film’s tone becomes more harrowing. Switching from a funny to a more weighty tone ran the risk of ruining the film from how jarring it could’ve been. While the tonal shift is off-putting, it also works perfectly as a blunt reminder of the harsh reality the boys found themselves in.

In the end, “American Animals” works amazingly well as a faux documentary because its dramatization is greatly influenced by the interviews that parallel it. With clear cues and homages to heist films of the past and an air of uncertainty as the accounts become suspenseful, Layton’s film is a standout that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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