Written and Directed by: Bart Layton
Perspective is one of the key themes in Bart Layton’s film American Animals. I say this because the film’s subjects say this. We are repeatedly told that the story we see is not unquestionably the truth: it is simply a recreation of the memory of one of the film’s subjects. This honesty, however, is not the only obvious way American Animals deals with perspective. The film takes a unique approach: rather than simply recounting a historical event, it combines its account with interviews with its subjects.
American Animals is a heist movie. It tells the story of four boys/young men who are inspired to steal a number of rare books, the main one a collection of Audubon paintings, from their college library. The first character Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is the one to see the books. We learn from the real Spencer that he felt his life lacked meaning, and he had a sense that as an aspiring painter he needed suffering in his life. We are later introduced to his friend Walter (Evan Peters) a carpe-diem dumpster diver, who is reluctantly at school on an athletic scholarship. The other two members of the team, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) join the fray once the heist is well underway.
American Animals in a way frees itself from realism by openly acknowledging that it can only deal with perspectives (and furthermore, by allowing its interviewed subjects to say they “Don’t remember things that way.”) Nonetheless, one way it lets itself be confined by realism is by Mr. Moleing Spencer. This is a reference to Kenneth Grahme’s The Wind in the Willows, which sets readers up to think Mr. Mole is its protagonist, before ultimately focusing on the wilder Mr. Toad. American Animals opens like the far darker (and fictional film) Thoroughbreds pairing a mild-mannered, sensitive protagonist who is ambivalent about crime with a more reckless sidekick. In its realism, however, American Animals ends up transitioning so that the reckless sidekick, Warren, comes to be the star: on the practical grounds that it is Warren who has the daring and initiative to immerse himself most in the heist. This realist decision, I’d argue, is not the film’s best. While the real life Warren is very engaging when interviewed, the ascendance of his cinematic representation leads to Spencer’s drama-script being replaced with a technically-driven-action script (I guess that’s just not my cup of tea). Furthermore, when the film seems to be about Spencer’s role in stealing a rare art book, it feels like a quirky take on the heist movie: a thief driven more so as an artist than by his drive for wealth. When Spencer is moved into the background, however, the film’s unique persona fades a bit.
Even if one does not like heist movies for their own sake, however, there is still plenty of reason to see American Animals: the source story is too rich not to be engaging. While I would have liked the other characters to be as developed as Warren, there are ways in which his status as leader contributes to the film’s theme of perspective. Not only is Walter both a fictional and real person for us viewers, he is also a thing of mystery to those he guided
American Animals is not a film without a theme. Bart Layton explained this in an interview, saying the driving idea behind his work was the pressure society puts on us to be successful, regardless of what success actually means. Nonetheless, the film’s commitment to exploring perspective also makes it a themeless work in a way. The film is not a happy story for anybody. Its subjects, though legally men, are in many ways boys. They are still in school, their lives are still tied to their parents and their act, in their heads, is a playful one (for more thoughts on this subject see my comments on Bonnie and Clyde). Therefore, the film is largely sympathetic to its subjects and thus reflective of themes that speak to them (like the aforementioned notion of the pressure to be exceptional). At the same time the film also depicts the B.J Gooch (Ann Dowd) librarian from whose collection they try to steal. She was left traumatized by the event, in which she was tasered and tied up. Her appearance means the films ends in a moment of near cognitive dissonance. On the one hand viewers are left sympathetic for the boys and angry at a justice system that punished them far more severely than probably necessary to deter and correct their behavior. On the other hand, this message is not promoted at the expense of erasing the (albeit accidental) consequences of their actions (for the record, Gooch is a fan of the film).
It would be wrong to call a film as real and sombre as American Animals an escape from reality. Nonetheless, its appreciation of “perspective” makes it an escape from a certain kind of reality: a reality made up of politics and political pundits. American Animals rather allows us to escape back to a truer reality: one filled with ideas, enriching ones, but ideas that are not always fully coherent. Is this approach always cinematically satisfying?: not necessarily. At times I wondered if the story would have been better if it focused in on the soul of a single character more than the collective plot of four. Then again, this approach made it all the more effective when the script would briefly zone in on an individual. If you’re looking to see innovative cinema, definitely check out American Animals. How much and why you like it, however, will depend on your relationship with the heist genre.