Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Review: American Animals

American Animals
Cert: 15 / 117 mins / Dir. Bart Layton / Trailer

It's odd how these things come around. Two movies produced separately, but with similar themes and uncanny timing. Armageddon and Deep Impact. Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Skyline and Battle Los Angeles.

Cinematic synchronicity is nothing new of course, but we currently have two parables of pilfering from opposite sides of the pond, hitting the release schedules at the same time. One from the old school, one from the new; one arising from some opinionated sense of long-term revenge, one from existential dissatisfaction. Both involve the stealing of antiquities rather than cash, and both fail because the perpetrators' ultimate aim is to knock on those antiquities... for cash. One of these movies is a languorous study of obsession, guilt and regret.
The other most certainly is not, but we won't get into all that again. Yet.

There comes a point where you have to wonder whether real-life heists are worth making into movies. Because why else would filmmakers create so many fictional ones? Bart Layton's American Animals opens with the two part caption card "This is not based on a true story. This is a true story". And the truth hurts from the off. Beginning in 2003, it's coming to something when a period-piece only needs CRT monitors and Nokia 3310s to sell its era. I feel middle-aged enough as it is, thanks.

The title relates to a passage from one of the incredibly rare books held in the special collections area of Transylvania University*1 library, Kentucky. When drifting student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) remarks on the artefacts to his directionless yet hyper-focussed friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), the pair begin an outlandish plot to liberate the volumes and sell them on the private market. To do this they'll need a bigger team than just the pair of them, which results in the recruitment of the less-enthusiastic Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson). The players are one thing, the game itself is another. Practice makes perfect, but is there such a thing as the perfect robbery?

Playfully loose, the recounting of events surrounding the well documented 2004 theft is dependent on the recollections of those involved. And those involved - the actual thieves, having served prison time - are present on-screen, throughout. As the perpetrators freely admit here, emotional truth and historical fact can be wildly different sides of the same coin.

Revealing the real-life participants of a dramatisation isn't a new idea either of course, but here it happens early, frequently and becomes how the story is told. Documentary interview footage with the protagonists' parents, college lecturers and the boys themselves intersperses the runtime, threatening to upset the pacing at first, since this introspective dramatisation is not quite the feature which the trailer was selling. The finished product comes out at around 80% film, 20% retrospective, but the drama never lets you forget its source.

American Animals isn't necessarily bringing anything new to the genre, but that's because it's players are consciously imitating, not innovating. Layton's film is as much about art as it is about crime. The art of planning a robbery and the creative leaps a conscience will take afterward to justify it. At one point, the boys are shown watching crime movies to help them coordinate their own sting. This is the ultimate in self awareness from the writer/director, as they reap the rewards of such poor research, and in doing so create the perfect piece to not watch before planning a blag.

But the depiction of the robbery itself is tense and awkward in equal measure, a real masterclass is visual storytelling. While this a tale told from the robbers' perspective(s), they're not presented as heroes. The audience isn't willing them to succeed as much as they are to just stop. And in terms of character motivation, interaction and development American Animals is leagues ahead of that structurally similar British offering.

Evan Peters appears at first to be acting in a much slicker, more intense film. Although the more interview time we spend with the real Warren, the more we realise how accurate that probably is. Barry Keoghan is on cracking form as Spencer, with boredom and stress fighting for the centre-stage spot in his psyche. This is, it has to be said, primarily their show. Although Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson make up the other 50% of the crew, the focus on their characters is as hesitant as their characters' contribution to the heist.

What's interesting is that there's surprisingly little moralising other than the self-reflection*2. The gang didn't fail because Theft Is Bad, they failed because they didn't plan properly and didn't stick to the things they had covered. They fucked up, end of. Then again, one of the guys uses his mobile phone in a library, so they deserve everything coming to them, frankly.

Ponderous and at times more than a little self-indulgent, much of the first hour feels like a story waiting to begin. But when it does, there's no turning back. Ultimately, the movie is about Generation Y's discontent at being expected to carry on the suburban phase of the American Dream, which despite its socio-geographical specificity is something most younger viewers will click with.

American Animals may be a little too uneven to be at the top of its game, but it knows what it wants to say and it says that well.

And compared to King Of Thieves, it's like fucking Reservoir Dogs

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you can, rainy afternoon, sure.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It'll be a streamer at first, then buy when it comes down to a sensible price for a movie you're not going to be watching every week.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Difficult to say as it's so much of its own thing.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Barry Keoghan is in this, and he was in that Dunkirk with Tom 'Stormtrooper from The Last Jedi who was cut out of the final edit but fuck it he's in the deleted scenes and the novelisation so it still counts and you know fine well if you or I had been in that suit we'd be telling everyone about it at every opportunity' Hardy.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yes, it's really called this; no, I don't understand either. Presumably just down the road from St Addams Comprehensive School and The Munsters Adult Education Centre, I don't know. Don't @ me. [ BACK ]

*2 Although seriously lads, you zip-tied a librarian and she wet herself. You didn't kill anyone, get over it. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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