American Animals

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday June 1, 2018

American Animals

Writer-director Bart Layton takes a page - almost - from the "I, Tonya" playbook in the telling of "American Animals," the true story of a quartet of college students who decide, over the course of several months in 2003 and 2004, to plan and execute of heist of rare books from a university library.

The film's title refers not so much to the most valuable book targeted by the four, which is filled with Audubon's illustrations of bird species, but the motives behind their plan. Two of the students - Eric (Jared Abrahamsson) and Chas (Blake Jenner), both brought in for practical purposes after the plot is hatched - seem to be in it strictly for the payday, which promises to run into the millions. But the pair at the start, and the center, of the plot, are driven by very different forces. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an aspiring artist, covets the book; his face fills with wonder and love upon his first beholding of Audubon's work. (You wonder why he goes along with the plan to sell the book to underworld types in the Netherlands, one of whom is played by Udo Kier, when he so obviously wants to keep the huge tome and its artwork for himself.) But Spencer has a deeper desire, one that's harder to explain; he's an ordinary suburban kid with loving parents and a good home life. He suspects that in order to be a first-rate artist, he needs something life-altering, or life-defining: Mental illness, tragedy, anything that will make such a deep impression that his take on the world will be forever stamped by it and allow him to create unique art of his own.

Spencer's off-the-wall, try-anything friend Warren (Evan Peters, in what's probably his best film role) is eager for the cash, too, but even more, he's keen to pull off something daring. He's a ball of manic energy, and you can sense his interest in anything that will challenge and fulfill his vast appetite for adventure and his deep curiosity about the world's exotic climes. "are;t you curious?" he almost pleads with Spencer, who is a hard sell on the idea. "To find out what would really happen? In real life?" Many young men feel as he does, attracted to extremes that will test their capabilities. Some scale Everest; others join the Marines. To Warren, whose moral compass seems more a little off kilter, a heist will do just as well.

As the plan for the theft takes shape, with Spencer sketching out the building's floor plans piece by piece and Warren Googling "How to execute a bank heist," elaborate details start to emerge. The group decide to use makeup, wigs, and facial prostheses in order to disguise themselves as a group of elderly men - "Because being old is the closest thing to being invisible," an observation both funny and frightening in its perspicacity - and they map out their escape route, timing a series of dry runs.

Their research is drawn, to a large degree, from old movies, and sometimes they import trivial or absurd aspects from cinematic pulp fiction into their real life plans. (Cue the inevitable argument, rehashed in gleeful homage, of who should be dubbed "Mr. Green," "Mr. Yellow," "Mr. Black," and - most controversially - "Mr. Pink" for the duration of the crime.) While his characters go about their preparations, Layton, too, discovers new details and tucks them in; in particularly nice visual gag is a sign reading, "SUPPORT THE TROOPS," with a secondary message beneath that advises, "All You Can Eat Turkey Tuesday." Not a bad backdrop for a moment in which Warren yaks up an evening's allotment of booze.)

But as surprisingly effectual as these juvenile plans might be, there's a huge roadblock that makes the entire enterprise more difficult and more legally and ethically serious: The rare volumes in question reside in a special room at the library of The University of Transylvania in Kentucky, under the watchful eye of Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd). How will the guys deal with her? Will they, in their adrenalized state, turn vicious and fulfill the other implicit meanings of the film's title?

As with "I, Tonya," interview footage (in this instance a mix of real people involved in the events, plus some actors) is intercut with the feature's dramatizations, but Layton takes things a step further by including the real people in scenes with the actors that portray them, even allowing them to interact with one another. "This is how you remember it?" Evan Peters asks Warren, the two of them sitting in a car as Barry Keoghan ventures into a gas station; "Not exactly," Lipka replies. Such divergences in memory are to be expected when events are recounted by multiple parties, and the film makes this a key creative component.

It's a little unfair, if unavoidable, to compare "American Animals" with the sharper, zester, and more electrically-charged "I, Tonya." The two films may share some stylistic similarities, but they are very different beasts. Crucially, where "I, Tonya" held with white-knuckled satisfaction to the ambiguities and uncertainties of its tale, "American Animals" searches descends into moralizing. It's not that Warren, Spender, Eric, and Chas shouldn't be allowed to express remorse at their misdeeds or pain at the mistakes of their youth; and it's not that Betty Jean Gooch's take on the events and the men behind them reads a bit like a victim impact statement. That's all fine. But if you're going to pursue some sort of redemptive sensibility, is it really enough to show us soulful pauses and then tell us that one of the perpetrators is now "writing a book on prison workout regimens" while the other is a painter who "specialises [sic] in birds"?

Movie supporting to tell the true stories of feckless young men who dare to plunge in over their heads and then fumble, with comic ineptitude and considerable danger, toward inevitable disgrace are something of a trend of late - think "American Made" and "War Dogs," for instance. If we're to believe the old maxim, truth really is stranger than fiction, and often funnier and more poignant, too. But that's a hard mix of emotions to convey, and any depiction of past events - as this film itself acknowledges - involves, at the least, light fictionalization, as when you have to decide who's recollections are more likely to be accurate (or even true). "American Animals" wants to be as funny and scalding as "I, Tonya," but on balance it still lands closer to the clownishly exaggerated guys-will-be-guys japery of "War Dogs." That's not at all a bad thing - just something you ought to know.


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.