With outstanding screenplay that is complemented by wise directing choices and elevated by genuinely good acting, "American Animals" is an exemplary indie film.
Independent cinema is a very treacherous territory. Always bound by monetary limitations, filmmakers push to bring their dreams to life, usually using non-conventional narration, experimental editing, subliminal cinematography and presumptuous acting. No wonder the results vary tremendously from being almost unwatchable (“Thoroughbreds“) to bonkers awesome (“Upgrade“). “American Animals” is one of the movies that works specifically in the realm of independent cinema. And what a film it is!
There is not a proper reason to describe the decision of two childhood friends Spencer and Warren to plot a heist. Disillusionment? Rebellion against parents? Boredom? Both real life Spencer and Warren claim in their interviews they did it to experience something they never have done before. But what kind of reason is that? After all they can’t even agree not only who first entertained the idea of heist but even when did it happen. Warren claims it was at a party. Spencer is sure it happened when they were driving to convenience store. Regardless, one thing is sure – Spencer tells Warren about an amazing collection of rare books in the library of Transylvania University. The pinnacle of the collection is John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America”, said to be worth millions. And the best thing is that it is being guarded by an old librarian. Simple enough, isn’t it?
“American Animals” is written and directed by Bart Layton. Film claims that it is not based on a true story but is actually a true story. For that it intermingles the fiction with documentary style interviews of people involved in the heist. With that not only we get to see what is happening, but also are given a narration to explain or question certain actions of the heroes. This helps the movie tremendously, because “American Animals” tries to get inside the heads of the main heroes. All to give us an explanation of why they did what they did.
And explanation is highly needed, because even for an untrained eye it is obvious that none of them know what they are doing. They have never participated in any serious criminal activity and possess absolutely minimal knowledge of forensics. Early in the film, Warren literally googles “how to organize a heist” and then they collectively binge watch heist and robbery movies. I mean, this is the level of sophistication the group uses when organizing what it seems to them as an infallible plan.
“American Animals” takes big deal to give us complete breakdown on every decision before the heist and it does so correctly. Just by looking at the weird and dangerous plan the group comes up first thing comes to mind is as what on Earth these idiots were thinking when concocting this mess. And something I enjoyed a lot is that film gives viewer a chance to figure it out himself. Unlike pure documentaries, where sometimes the bias starts coming pouring from all directions, film strays away from pushing any specific ideas. The interviews of the heroes are supposed to paint them in a good way. After all they were just kids, who didn’t know better, they keep saying. But viewers feel that whatever interviewees are telling is not necessarily true and is not what the filmmakers had in mind.
This effect is also heavily supported by “Rashomon” style narration. Witnesses can’t agree on a lot of basic stuff. Like who exactly Warren was talking to when trying to find a “fence” or who first came up with the idea of the heist. Or who decided that they needed to have extra people involved. At some point, even Spencer laments that he has taken some stuff that happened to Warren at a face value and questions whether whatever Warren has told him really happened or was just a figment of Warren’s imagination. This back-and-forth creates an extra dimension to narrative and makes film interesting even in dull moments.
Speaking of dull moments. The ending of the film, though I admit works well, felt long and preachy. Film very successfully builds up all the way to the heist, but the rest of the film after heist feels a little out of whack. Maybe, that is how it was intended. I am not sure.
To support this intriguing screenplay, Bart Layton provides us with a compelling directing. Here he does something experimental to independent cinema – all his directorial decisions are actually not artsy or experimental at all. There are no ultra-wide or super close-up shots. Very little shaky camera. Steady color scheme. No long takes. Carefully designed framing. Fluid editing. In fact the only thing that is worth mentioning here is director’s choice to use lenses with very shallow depth of field. This forces the heroes go out of focus really fast in some scenes.
And I am surprised it all works pretty well. His cuts complement fast nature of the film, constantly shifting perspective from interviews to dramatizations. Thus, film is very easy to watch and despite pretty long runtime (116 minutes) and subject material never bores you.
What I wanted to specifically compliment is the way Layton shows the heist itself. It is the moment of truth for our heroes, moment of understanding that their plan is not only bad but is also extremely stupid. Immediately concentrating on each of the heroes individually, Layton shows us the true raw reactions to realization what exactly they have done.
I have to commend acting as exceptional. Evan Peters steals the spotlight as Warren. He is extravagant, rebellious, narcissistic, practical. He is a natural leader. This all despite the fact that real-life Warren mentions multiple times that he is not and never was a “ring leader”. Peters’ performance begs to differ. Barry Keoghan plays Spencer and, in his portrayal, Spencer is a totally believable character. He is soft, enabling, lonely young man, who thinks he needs to life-altering experience to become a man. Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson play rest of the gang. Ann Dowd masterfully plays the librarian, Betty Jean. I was also surprised to see Udo Kier in a small role as an art dealer, but he is as charismatic and iconic as he has ever been. I really wished that he was used more.
“American Animals” is an excellent example of film that uses all advantages and tricks of independent cinema and turns it into something exemplary. Outstanding screenplay is complemented by wise directing choices and elevated by genuinely good acting. This film is highly recommended to watch.