American Animals (2018)

*. A group of young men try to steal some expensive books from a university library. Why? That is the question.
*. The answer is that there’s not much of an answer. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is the most mysterious. He wants to experience life intensely. He wants to suffer for his art. He wants to do something, be something. He’s bored. Take your pick from the thin pickings.
*. One of the quirks of American Animals is that it dramatizes the crime and the events leading up to it but intercuts interviews with the actual figures involved (writer-director Bart Layton’s previous film was a documentary). Trying to understand Spencer I found myself focusing on his interview segments. This may be in part because I really don’t like focusing on Barry Keoghan. I don’t think I like this actor much. He was very unlikeable in The Killing of a Sacred Deer but I put that down to the part and the film’s director. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t want you to like his actors. But I find Keoghan just as unlikeable here, despite the attempt to establish some sympathy for his character.
*. And it’s not just a question of liking or not liking him. I feel like I don’t get any insight into Spencer, or understand his motivations at all.
*. Warren (Evan Peters) is the easiest member of the gang to come to grips with. He’s from the a rougher neighbourhood, for starters. He’s phony, and slightly psychopathic. A young man, not very bright but somewhat charismatic, full of himself and on the make. When we see the real Warren he’s a familiar face.
*. I am baffled by the other two burglars. How they thought this was a good idea is beyond me. Perhaps they all saw themselves as the star of the movie and were as surprised as anyone at being relegated to supporting roles, albeit with the same 7-year sentence at the end.
*. Naturally enough, they seem to have been thinking in terms of a heist picture. The go to Blockbuster to do research, watching The Killing for tips. Their planning sessions mimic, pointlessly, Reservoir Dogs. Warren imagines the end of their story being like the fantasy ending of The Shawshank Redemption (something else that dishonest movie has to answer for). The film does not, however, invoke its two closest analogs: The Bling Ring and the Ocean’s movies of Steven Soderbergh.
*. I’ll start with Soderbergh. As I’ve said before, Soderbergh is maybe the slickest director around, and American Animals imitates that slickness with nearly every shot. It’s a movie that throws every visual trick in the book at you. Part of the title sequence, for example, comes at us, for no reason at all, upside-down. This trickiness doesn’t play in the chaotic, clashing manner of an Oliver Stone, however, but with Soderbergh’s trademark smoothness. We shift from different points of view using all sorts of graceful elisions and sleight-of-hand. Even when the trick makes itself obvious — switching to black-and-white, using split screens, rewinding the film, and introducing impossible characters into scenes — nothing ever seems out of place. Throw in a retro soundtrack of pop rock (that, like the upside-down shots, makes no sense to me) and you’ve got Ocean’s Kentucky.
*. With all this gimmickry you have to wonder what the point is. To appeal to an audience that can’t focus on one thing at a time? To distract us from a not very interesting story? To provide a distraction? To be emotionally expressive? I think it’s very well done, or very slickly done, but I don’t see where it lends itself to drawing a fuller or deeper portrait of Spencer and Warren. Which, I believe, was the goal.
*. The connection to The Bling Ring is more thematic. Both movies deal with gangs of relatively affluent suburban young people who adopt the gangster lifestyle and found themselves, not ironically, the stars of their own crime film. But in The Bling Ring the motivation is more to the point, while in American Animals . . . well, as I began by suggesting, perhaps the lack of motivation is the point. Either way: kids today.
*. For me it’s a frustrating film. It’s well produced and sometimes quite clever, with the heist itself being a suspenseful set piece. But it also fails to live up to its potential. It’s a true story that gives itself an opportunity to really open up that story for further investigation, or moral or social inquiry, and it doesn’t go there. Instead it settles for being a movie about a bunch of young people who wanted to be in a heist movie, and that’s exactly where they ended up.

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