Over a month ago I saw American Animals at the cinema, having not seen The Imposter, I wanted to hold back my review of both until I’d seen them. There is over a months gap between seeing both films which will explain the introductions to both reviews. I felt I could go into more detail with Animals as there was more for me to consider, that’s not taking away from the brilliance of the earlier film.
I’ve just seen what could be easily seen as a game-changing documentary. The form’s tried and tested sometimes requiring reconstructions in part to illustrate and make certain points being explained more accessible to an audience. Director Bart Layton has taken the form in new direction, the combination of interviews and 3/4’s of the film being reconstruction. Admittedly I’ve not seen many feature-length documentaries to really to understand it fully, when I do it’s usually based on a musician, Supersonic (2016), Mavis! (2015), Senna (2010), all of which rely on archive footage and interviews to interrogate the subjects at the centre of the work. American Animals (2018) goes a few steps further, using one element of the genre and blending it to create something new. Dreams of a Life (2011) is the only piece that comes close to using the method to such lengths.
Focusing here on the 2004 Transylvania University rare book robbery from the institutions library, which honestly passed me buy, or was not reported over here in the UK. I was also 15 that year and had other things on my mind. For four first years/freshers their lives were about to change forever after undertaking a daring fascinating heist. The sheer audacity of the task is something that really has to be understood and in the processed taking for a through all the emotions that come with it. First meeting the originator Spencer Reinhard, an art student who appears to be very remorseful and reflective on his youth that has forever changed his life. The idea for the heist comes from a the library induction – not the most exciting part in early university of life, I skipped mine both times. Spencer’s took him to a special section, which I’m sure every institution has to a certain extent. This one however holds some of the rarest items in America, books so rare that an appointments. Spencer’s captivated with a rare book of ornithological paintings, the desire to handle these rare items is tangible. He tells us that famous artist have somehow how struggled during theirs in order to make great work. Is this his great act to have these priceless items his great struggle, is the effort he puts in all part of his artistic legend.
He can’t go into this day-dream alone, we meet Warren Lipka the live-wire and adventurous one who takes the risks that no one else will. We meet him first from being shown his tattoo of a dinosaur attempting to switch off a fan light. He doesn’t or didn’t take life too seriously. We can see that the attention to detail in the real-life thieves and the actors who played them in the reconstruction’s done with care. So far meeting Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters who we really get to know as what could easily be mistaken for characters in a standalone film. You can see a really strong male friendship with a mix of antics and semi serious planning into what at that stage they could still back out of.
Starting with some cinematic research; a collection of library rented heist films to get an understanding of the planning. I’m reminded of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema episode on the heist movie that breaks up how the films of the genre’s constructed. We have a clip from The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The only flaw with all this entertaining research being that it could have all ended there and then. Each film as it builds up through the planning, the recruiting of the team to the execution always ends in tears. The law of the land and social morals always win through, members of the team die or are lost along the way, or even worse give the game away. The romanticism of the genre only generates ideas and the passion in them, when all the while I was thinking, didn’t they see how they ended.
As the plan progresses they realise that the team needs to expand, we meet in turn Eric Borsuk the brains to get them in and out securely and the finance guy – Chas Allen who both initially think that these two guys are crazy to go through with this audacious plan. Yet they succumb to the thrill of what it’s all about, if it can be so carefully planned they can get away with the perfect crime, something that lies behind every premeditated act. Any sense of reality falls away until much later in the film. As the film progresses we spend more and more time in the reconstruction, very little with those being interviewed, only cutting back to particular points where their four men’s stories contradict do we get to see that conveyed visually, no two sides are the same, as with any number of accounts, each unique to the participants, as we go over what happened throughout its run-time.
If you’re not familiar with the robbery there’s a lovely twist that’s spared from the trailer as the robbery’s played out twice (almost). When fully underway do we see that these young men are little more than children who are in over their heads. Starting to understand the consequences to their actions. Tensions ratcheted up as we understand the potential human cost. A robbery that sounds as audacious looks as it was made for the screen, not the inspiration for. Much like the more recent Hatton Garden diamond robbery during the 2015 Easter bank holiday which has since inspired at least 2 films in quick succession. The robbery here as slick as the films that inspired the students is not as reality would prove it to be. As the films that inspired them, the overlooked endings come back to bite them as their Consciences begin to eat away at the young men. Wrapping up the film on a sombre note, a number of hard lessons are learned, families are affected, lives altered forever or everyone involved. I’m left the film after being taken on a number of thrills before being brought back down to earth as traditional cinematic story telling cleverly blends with the facts of documentary that are understood to easily be contradicted, showing that the very nature of the truth is not as simple as it the definition tells you.
It’s been well over a month since I watched American Animals and now the time has come to digest The Imposter (2012). I can’t ignore the fact that I didn’t know of it’s impact, be that the content of the film or its critical appraisal at the time of release. Personally the impact on me is rather different from American Animals. Both however are shocking in the true stories which they are based upon. It’s the form they take that really define them.
Again I’m coming from a lack of experience when it comes to talking about documentaries. The form of The Imposter is far more convention, a combination of interviews and re-enactment, just not to the scale that has made Animals redefine what the genre can do. It’s the true-life story that has determined the journey we go on. Beginning with Frédéric Bourdin whom we immediately question his motives, why did he take advantage of a family that had lost their son and brother. Set up like a true crime piece with all the family discussing who Nicholas Barclay, a cheeky 13-year-old who knew how to get his own way, loved by all but could be a trouble maker, nothing really out of the ordinary for a young teen pushing the boundaries. Then going missing from his Texas home in 1994, before apparently being picked up in Spain by a stranger.
The version of events that we are first given seem very convincing, we’re sold this story, much like the family who are completely duped by this serial liar that takes everyone, as we later learn has carried out this countless times around the world. No average person can understand Bourdin’s motivations, even his pathetic explanation, we are left bewildered that even at the age of 22 he had caused so much distress. Leaving a wake of more distress for the Barclays by suggesting that the mother and her late son had killed and buried the younger boy.
The use of the private investigator Charlie Parker adds another layer, not just for allowing the story to blow wide open to the media. The director kept him on to investigate the possibility of a body being found, pushing the ethical boundaries of what is possible on film. I couldn’t believe that as we were seeing the family discuss the murder inquiry, the lie detector tests whilst in other scenes this determined man was out there with a pick-axe. Just mind-blowing to place the images together. I wonder of the families reaction to seeing the finished film. It shows that Layton’s prepared to take a risk, follow a line of inquiry and see where it leads. I wonder how his relationship with the family was affected after the films release, like they have been exploited towards the end to see if there’s truth in a rumour that could open up more than just old wounds.
Ultimately Layton allowed the facts drive the documentary, acting more as an investigator than a film-maker, allowing it to form out of his curiosity for the subject matter. Both a creepy individual and suspicious family are exposed, no-one comes out clean at the films close. Much like American Animals, they all get what was coming to them, in another unbelievably true story. I am left wondering where Layton will go next?