American Animals Ponders upon our Evolutionary Stagnation

The film theorizes that life isn’t like a typical heist film, but it most certainly is like a movie
American Animals Ponders upon our Evolutionary Stagnation

When you think of a heist film, it might most commonly bring to mind the seamless sexiness of a Danny Ocean team waltzing their way through heavily-guarded casinos. Their effortless charm and perfectly-synchronized choreography are the only tools at their disposal when trying to pull off the impossible. Bart Layton's American Animals is the real-life story of a group of college students, desiring to emulate such films, that commit one of the most poorly executed robberies in recent memory. This is the tale of an earnest disaster.

The tragedy of the four delusional young men trying to steal invaluable art and revered books from one of their universities' libraries is equal parts gripping, heartbreaking, and painful to watch. All of them are waiting for that particular discovery or event which will give their life meaning. The suffering they were told they would have to endure in order to mould them into men of substance is glaringly missing, replaced with an existence filled with comfort and abundance. The "American" in the film's title should then be highlighted for these students who feel that the Dream sold to them by this country has fallen devastatingly short in its fruition.

Tenets of a forgone era slowly unravel in front of the men, still confused about their place in the new order of things. The destructive and aggrandized idea of traditional manhood is slowly dismantled for Warren (Evan Peters) when his mother declares that she wants a divorce after being treated as a second-class citizen in her own house, prompting his father to break out into tears. Warren responds to this vulnerable display with uncontrollable rage, screaming at his father to stop being a coward. After losing his athletic scholarship, Warren erupts at his coach about what a grave disappointment his whole experience, living out the dream of countless other men, has been. A taxidermied deer looms over him in this frame, the once glorious and authoritative animal now hunted down as prey and relegated to a mantlepiece. Similarly, Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is shown at a frat house initiation where he feels utterly humiliated but goes on with the demeaning rituals anyway because it is supposed to make him feel like a part of this brotherhood. He leaves ashamed, never to return.

The film's style is described as 'docufiction', jumping back and forth from the slow-burn heist movie, to the real-life people that made it happen sitting in the middle of the frame with a blurry background and speaking awkwardly into the camera. The real-life men are given ample screen time, frequently inserting themselves into the narrative when they feel misrepresented instead of just passively relaying their memories. This leads to a more comprehensive understanding of their independent realities as the accounts are murky and inconsistent with each other. In most stories based on true events, creative liberty allows the writer to take the most interesting parts of each participant and witnesses' stories and piece them together. This is an essential part of filmmaking, streamlining and cutting out the excess, but something about the way American Animals chooses to keep in the differing memories of each person, and asks the viewer time and again to be an active participant in their own deception, is fascinating. When the real-life Warren tells his reel-counterpart to go along with Spencer's recollection about the exact location of where the idea to steal the art first came about, you get the feeling that you can trust the story even more precisely because it admits that it doesn't know for certain if this is the truth.

American Animals theorizes that life isn't like a typical heist film, but it most certainly is like a movie. Every person believes that they are the main character, with their own unique motivations and fears about doing this job. No one wants to play second fiddle, something most films based on real events gloss over when relegating important real-life people to the background for better structural cohesion. Here, everyone gets to plead their case, and we are left to decide what we believe. This doesn't take away from the strong emotional response and dread we feel for each of these men. Something about the sheer incompetence, paired with the borderline ignorant understanding of the ramifications of their actions, makes for compelling characters as we see their choices escalate from bad to worse with no absolution afforded to any of them.

The men achieve their life-altering experience by almost getting a life sentence. Pivoting from their original dreams and trying to rebuild themselves now, most of them try to use the prison experience as a cautionary tale for others and themselves. This acts as a punishing reminder of how their time behind bars has made them shadow versions of themselves, with their vacant eyes looking through the viewer. In many ways, the real-life men are less authentic than the actors playing them. This is true for all but one of them.

Movie-Spencer is at a loss for words in a scene where he must describe his aspirations for the artwork he produces at a panel discussion about his portfolio. The opening scene where the real-life and fictional Spencers glance at each other as the latter is in a minivan, on his way to commit the central crime, reads at first as powerless. The real Spencer can do nothing but watch as those events play out and resign himself to reliving that moment every morning. Given the knowledge now that Spencer becomes a bonafide artist and even paints birds similar to the hauntingly enticing Audubon ones, this scene shown again at the end of the film is now framed as the best decision he made in his life, smirking ever so mechanically at how this would catapult him into the public eye as the troubled artist he so desperately wanted to become. This is the tale of his malicious triumph.

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