American Animals (2018) by Bart Layton
Review by Reid Ramsey
Some movies are self-aware and therefore more fun. Other movies are self-aware and therefore obnoxious. Bart Layton’s American Animals falls somewhere between these two notions. Clearly the movie is doing something clever and fairly unique. Layton consistently interrupts his true-crime heist movie about four privileged college students robbing their library’s rare books collection with talking-head style footage of the criminals, now grown-up, describing every detail of the planning and execution of the infamous heist.
American Animals treats truth as relative and unimportant, movies as fodder to be replicated, and youth as fleeting and worthwhile. Yet within these themes, whether noble or not, the movie is too often obsessed with its own gratification and has about as much cinematic consciousness of the college students at its core.
Layton’s style is all about adaptation and evolution, much like one of the rare books conveniently included in the heist: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The movie pulls from other films where necessary. Almost all movies do this to an extent. About halfway through the movie though, when a popular song from the Ocean’s Trilogy plays as the boys imagine their heist, I realized pretty quickly that American Animals isn’t at all as sophisticated as it wants to be.
The referential style can only go so far when the movie itself doesn’t have any of the style or flair of the movie it references. It works similarly by drawing references to less glamorous heist movies, such as Reservoir Dogs. These scenes only point out that the students are too thoughtless to understand they’re positioning themselves in a heist movie where so many die. References and homages should understand and expand on the original source. Instead, most of the references in this movie just reinforced that I’d rather be watching a different, better heist movie.
The only unique style in American Animals is the inventive use of documentary footage. It adds necessary emotional resonance when you see Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) all grown up, telling his story with remorse. The fleeting magic trick, however, is quickly cashed-in for a cat and mouse game of fact or fiction. Layton, instead of delving into the complex layers of emotion of each criminal, decides to take the easier route of pointing out the discrepancies of their stories. So when Spencer remembers that he and Warren (Evan Peters) had their first conversation about the heist in the car, but Warren remembers they had it at a party, the movie transitions flawlessly between the two atmospheres while the characters discuss the books.
While it gets a big laugh from a generous audience, it willfully avoids adding any depth of character or emotion. These moments are the most telling in the movie, though, for it revels in the one unique stylistic component of the movie. Instead of increasing the emotional complexity, American Animals chooses to wink at the audience, saying, “Aw, isn’t it cute how these friends don’t all remember it the same way because truth all sounds different 14 years later?”
One of the most troubling components of American Animals is perhaps its own existence. I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out. Why is this the story Layton and crew decided was important to share? Why is the latest true-crime, attempted-empathy-machine recapping and adding to an early 2000s heist performed by four bored kids. Only one character is ever indicted enough for us to consider it any kind of grand statement by Layton.
With millions of American stories of “good” people committing crimes, this one is about four white boys who are bored with their education and decide that the only way they can be special is by pulling off a relatively minor heist. Early in the movie, the real Spencer remarks, “There’s more to art than just, ‘Oh my life is pretty great right now and I can draw’.” It’s the typical privileged college art student realization that their art will be super boring if they don’t disconnect from their own wealthy upbringing and engage in some socio-economic hardship that they’ve managed to avoid so far.
When asking why over and over in my head (why can I not connect with this movie? why was this movie made? why is it important to the filmmakers to show us otherwise likable kids becoming randomly violent?), I realized that Spencer’s quote is the accidental thesis. There is more to art than a great life and technical skill. Why did they make this often-thrilling, way-too-cutesy, frustratingly confused heist movie? Because their lives were pretty great and they can use a camera. It’s a luxury not everyone can afford after committing a felony, but when you’re four funny dudes who attempted to violently rob a library, you didn’t do it because you should, you did it because you can; and thus laying out the blueprints for all uninteresting and problematic art and heists.