Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

American Animals

American Animals review by FilmZ

A brief aside before we begin: This film had our very own Quincy Wagstaff Googling Transylvania University, hoping for Vlad Tepes references, but he realized to his disappointment that only Jefferson Davis, two Supreme Court justices, and a ton of statesmen count among its alums.  Also, after the film, Guy Malone, Researcher, hustled out the door, saying he had some business to conduct at the Franklin and Marshall College Library.  We haven't seen him since, hence my name on the review.

American Animals has nothing to do with any of that.  Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton wrote and directed this account of four college students who planned and executed (we use the term loosely) the heist of rare books from the Transylvania University Library.  It opens with the disclaimer: "This film is not based on a true story"--and then the words "not based on" are lifted from the sentence.  True to his original calling, Layton's story is a docudrama with a twist: as the film unfolds, the director cuts away from the story and to the actual robbers who annotate the events we are watching actors dramatize.  This gives the film layers that critics who disliked it seemed to miss.  But we'll get to that.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), a laconic teen from a solid upper middle class family is entering Transylvania (KY) University as an art major.  On Spencer's campus orientation tour, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) takes his group into the rare book room and shows them an original edition of John James Audubon avian paintings.  The book, worth $12 million, is kept under a locked glass case, inside the secure room, all of which is under Ms. Gooch's close watch.  The seed of temptation is planted.  Spencer tells his best friend and loose wire Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a disaffected jock from a disintegrating family.  Warren interprets this information as an invitation to join in on a daring heist. As much as Spencer denies he meant to suggest they steal the book, he isn't sure about that; either way, the idea takes hold, and as Warren's excitement builds, Spencer becomes swept up in it.

The conspirators watch heist movies, they draw up floor plans, Warren Googles how to pull off a robbery, and they even locate a "fence" on a trail that leads to New York and Amsterdam.  As they begin to develop fine points, Warren decides that they need two more men to pull off the heist: pensive accounting major Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and the aggressive, entitled Chas Allen (Blake Jenner).  But as the plan becomes more complex, their impatience leads them to go lax on details.  And what to do about Betty Jane Gooch? As heist films go, we are accustomed to slick jobs, performed with Swiss watch timing by experienced crooks, each with a particular set of skills.  This ain't those movies.  These are kids, amateurs feeling their way.  Juxtapose this film with the slick, high-budget Oceans 8 that we discussed a few weeks ago, and you have two opposites; in Oceans 8, the plan is pat and foolproof, and whenever a glitch arises coincidence and deus ex machina combine to ensure that everything falls into place.  The heist works, but the film doesn't because there is no sense of risk.

 Amplifying the sense of risk in American Animals are the aforementioned cutaways to the actual robbers, now in their 30s, and their parents. The real Spencer and Warren relate their own memories about how it all went down, and in some areas their recollections don't match, but we never get the sense that they are whitewashing their culpability.  Eric, perhaps more than the others, expresses a wistful sadness over his dashed dream of working with the FBI, and Chas just wonders how they could have been so stupid.  Layton captures their personalities, their reflections, and especially the introspection that Spencer expresses.  Most revealing is the conviction held by all four that they were raised to think they were destined to become something special and the dawning realization that, in order for it to become actualized they would have to make it happen. These documentary interludes are what makes the film work.  The men mention a line they were about to cross that would change their lives forever, no matter the result.  Before that line is crossed, they are fearful, seeing risk as well as reward, and the promise of reward wins out.  After crossing that line, we see regret.  As our own Captain HE put it, "It was a gut check on our moral compass ... a forensic examination of the psychology of morality [that] demands an introspective review of what keeps the majority on the 'right.'"

As you have probably guessed by now, things don't go well, or as Serfing Dude put it, "The execution of the caper by those students was how it would probably go if FilmZ and his merry band would have plotted to steal popcorn from the concession stand."  Keeping things from becoming too tragic are the layered performances by talented actors on the cusp of stardom, especially Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse, American Horror Story), who captures Warren's manic charm and whose wry grin and glint in his eye give low-key enhancement to the films lighter moments,  Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) is more nuanced, but equally effective as a pensive fatalist.  The always excellent Ann Dowd (Hereditary, The Handmaid's Tale, The Leftovers) is perfection as the, erm, dowdy, dutiful librarian.  This is one of those films people look back on in ten years and say, "Damn, all that talent in that cool little movie."  The entire gang enjoyed American Animals immensely; in the end, I agree with Don Swedanya's final grade:
8.0 out of 10 on both Entertainment and Artistic Scales.


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