B art Layton’s American Animals is destined to be a true marmite movie—you will love it or hate it—and your reaction is likely to rest largely on how impressed you are by claims that a film takes on big philosophical questions, and how interested you are in the criminal antics of some unremarkable yet remarkably full of themselves white dudes from the suburbs.
Intellectual interest in American Animals rests primarily on the way it combines documentary and fictional techniques. The principal characters appear on camera as themselves (as interview subjects, in the present day, which has the presumably unintended effect of letting you know that they’re all alive and well), but most of the film consists of a reenactment of the key events of the story with actors. It’s the same technique Craig Gillespie used to great effect in I, Tonya, which is (unfortunately for Bart Layton and this film) a superior in every way, from the intrinsic interest of the story line to the acting performances. In contrast, American Animals has a mildly interesting story and adequate performances, while any hopes of a serious examination of The Nature of Cinematic Truth evaporate early in the film. People remember things differently, people lie to protect themselves, and if these thoughts come as insights to you, then I think you need to get out more.
Instead, American Animals plays out like a conventional heist film interspersed with occasional breaking of the fourth wall. It’s based on a true story—in 2004, four college students (Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk) decided they could make some easy money by stealing and fencing rare books and manuscripts from the Transylvania University Library in Lexington, Kentucky—and if you want to know how this caper played out for real, Google awaits you. Watching their little plan play out in fictional time is fairly entertaining, and it’s kind of amazing how much time and effort they put into it—didn’t they have any studying to do? It’s also revealing that they seemed to be heavily influenced by heist movies (particular Reservoir Dogs) rather than any real-life experience with the acts they are planning, and weren’t self-aware enough to consider that this might be a problem.
The performances of the main actors are engaging, including Evan Peters as Lipka, Barry Keoghan as Reinhard, Jared Abrahamson as Borsuck, Blake Jenner as Borsuck, and Ann Dowd as Betty Jean Gooch, the rare books librarian whom they attempt to victimize. Layton’s writing and direction keep the story moving, while Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography lay a glossy, slightly unreal sheen over the characters and their doings.
The most repugnant aspect of American Animals is the limitless sympathy it offers the privileged criminals who are its primary characters—in fact, it seems calculated to make them so gosh darn likeable that their transgressions will be forgiven. Of course, that requires that you ignore the brutality of their crime (even the perps seemed shocked by the fact that they are actually hurting Ms. Gooch, although one wonders what they thought would happen) as well as their unconsidered willingness to rob a library of some of its most valuable books (which included several Audubon folios and a first-edition Origin of Species). But if you buy into this film’s approach to its characters, you may well regard their acts as youthful hijinks or innocent mistakes that should be forgiven, because among us has not beaten up an elderly woman in order to steal rare books from an educational institution? Sadly, since the perps are white males from privileged backgrounds, and Americans are well-practiced in discounting violence against women, it’s not impossible that that sentiment will prevail. | Sarah Boslaugh