American Animals (2018)

Directed by Bart Layton

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American Animals does not lack for spirit.  This documentary-heist thriller hybrid, with a little Todd Phillips thrown in, chronicles the buildup to an ill-fated university art heist by a group of four disaffected young men.  They steal not out of necessity but out of boredom.  They live quiet lives in Lexington, Kentucky, but still they are in no way as trapped as they feel.  All four of the boys are in college, with one hailed as a young entrepreneur.  Another has dreams of joining the FBI, one is already a talented artist and the other has thrown away a soccer scholarship out of spite.

The film is half documentary, with talking head segments of the real men behind the robbery.  Like in I, Tonya they occasionally contradict each other and add insight and commentary to propel the action forward.  The real men do come across as strangely engaging, and this only makes us like them more, despite what they are doing.

This isn’t a heist film where the ragtag group of thieves sets their sights on a large, sinister presence just asking to be taken down.  There is nothing like the casinos in Ocean’s Eleven or the banks of Hell or High Water, instead it’s a school library.

If you’re going to have trouble with this film, it’s in the characters’ intent and the fact that the movie even exists.  We are asked to care for and empathize with the four thieves, and I did.  At the same time they do what they do out of a type of boredom that some people don’t have time to feel.  They are all well off and commit to the robbery for no reason other than they want a life changing event in their lives.

The film glorifies their actions, even when they turn violent, before we’re allowed to see shots of the real robbers expressing remorse.  They sit there silently, as if contemplating their actions like the talking head segments at the end of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

We’re meant to believe they are expressing remorse, and while it does come across, does this mean they are to be pardoned?  It’s up to you to decide, but we at least hear not only from the robbers but also from the librarian whom they attacked as well as their family, deeply hurt by what they’ve done.

So the movie has its cake and eats it too.  We enjoy the fun out of a familiar heist story before we have to reckon with the sh*ttiness of the boys’ behavior.

Putting aside those shades of grey, which I didn’t really much consider until after the film was over, this was one hell of a ride.  The movie is made with energy, combining different scenes and even realities at a rapid fire pace.  One scene, in which the two leads, Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) discuss the plan, takes place in two settings while each of the real men explains their side of the story.  This single scene takes place in four different locations, and the actors move and speak in a way that blends them together in an extremely pleasing way, even if just for the impressive editing to weave it all together.

The talking head segments are at their best when they provide humor more than insight.  Later on, after things unravel, these segments feel much less necessary and just there to make sure we know they’re sorry for what they’ve done.  It’s also near the end of the film that the segments start to feel a little too polished.  While many wonderful moments appear to be organic, some of what the real men tell us feels a little too staged in order to make the moment work.

I suppose the ultimate point of this movie is that it’s not worth it to mortgage your future on a little excitement.  The message could apply to drugs, alcohol or any other vice.  The boys want to feel something and are so willing to throw everything else away in the process.  In addition, of course, they are bringing other people into the mess, using their youthful uncertainty and restlessness to cause major harm to the university librarian.

The message is a little heavy-handed at the end, but maybe it must be so just because of how damn fun most of the movie is beforehand.  To make sure we know they did a bad thing, we have the real people involved tell us they did a bad thing.  It’s almost like we are being shamed for watching everything we just saw.

And of course many people, again myself included, will enjoy it.  We’re used to watching heist films, and it’s ingrained in us to root for the scrappy underdogs trying to break into the big, bad corporate lair.  In this case we know the university has done nothing wrong and that the kids don’t need anything from this.  There is nothing at stake but their own pride, and even then they are ready to give up on multiple occasions.  So we care about them, but maybe we shouldn’t.  We’re watching a series of plans unfold that we’ve grown accustomed to enjoying in other movies.

And maybe that’s the point?  That we enjoy something in movies which is so despicable in reality.  Director Bart Layton knows we will have fun watching this movie, and in the end he kind of pulls the rug out from under us, revealing just how consequential their actions are.  Perhaps he wants us to get the same rush out of all of this that the four boys did because if it’s within them, then it’s within us too.  Maybe?

Layton’s previous film was a 2012 documentary called The Imposter.  I haven’t seen the movie, but I know he offers a certain slight of hand to fool the audience, paralleling the true story in which a family was supposedly fooled by a man who showed up at their door claiming to be their long-lost son.  He seems to try and duplicate the effect here.  Though we are never explicitly led astray, our emotional connection to the story is in some ways challenged, and I’d say rightly so.

Near the end of the movie we finally hear from Betty Jean Gooch, the real librarian who was forcibly restrained during the break in.  She doesn’t forgive the boys we are supposed to come to love.  She tells us that it’s not okay what they’ve done, and age isn’t much of an excuse.

Up Next: Eighth Grade (2018)Sorry to Bother You (2018), The Elephant Man (1980)

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