“American Animals” Movie Review

This is likely going to turn into a scenario where the people who keep demanding something new or innovative in cinema will reject this movie as “too arthouse” or “too weird.” If that happens, that means the filmmakers are on the right track for a solid career in the industry. This highly unconventional heist thriller premiered as part of the official competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up by both The Orchard and the newly formed distributor MoviePass Ventures. Entering a limited theatrical release on June 1st, the film expanded into more theaters and has managed to gross nearly $3 million at the box office. Written and directed by Bart Layton, the film marks his first foray into narrative features, following his breakout with the 2012 documentary The Imposter. Layton virtually expands the elements on atmospheric reenactments from that film to feature-length here. Based on a crazy true story, the film follows 4 college students- Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk -attending Transylvania University in Kentucky. The college library there is home to several priceless antique books, including two filled with very famous animal paintings by John James Audubon. In the 2003-2004 academic year, for reasons that still remain unclear, the men start joking about robbing the library blind. But they soon become serious about it, researching crime movies for help on their endeavor, setting up potential buyers for the books, and ultimately get ready to pull off one of the most daring heists in recent U.S. history. Movies centered on heists are hardly anything new in cinema these days, there are just so many of them. Any time a new one comes out, they have to REALLY work hard to impress me or stand out from the crowd in any way. And a former documentarian deciding to take on the story of 4 privileged white dudes pulling off a particularly stupid crime on a college campus? Interesting angle, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’ll be anything special or memorable. And just because it premiered and competed at Sundance or any other festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be worth the trouble of seeing in theaters, let alone worth reviewing. So take that as a sign of how much I liked Amercian Animals; I really had a lot of fun watching this movie. And trust me when I say that no reader here has ever seen any film quite like this in their whole life. Bart Layton may be working primarily with professional actors, but that doesn’t stop him from using his docudrama expertise to his advantage. While most of the film is told in a narrative fashion, it is directly followed by talking head interviews from the real-life subjects. They offer unique reflections on how everything went down, from first meeting one another to the sweat-inducing heist itself. But rather than just have them explain everything exactly as it happened, the filmmakers smartly decide to just let them provide more context as to their actions and motivations. Even better, each of them remembers certain scenarios or actions differently than others, providing both a slick comedic edge and some unreliable narrator shenanigans. Admittedly, it’s a little frustrating because it’s still left unclear why these 4 men did what they did. But I definitely enjoyed watching Layton try to add more thematic depth to the story. Errol Morris would be proud. Agents, studios, and cinephiles all need to start paying more attention to the 4 main actors in this movie. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do great in their respective roles, but Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan play Warren and Spencer, the ringleaders of the operation, and do particularly fantastic work together. Keoghan, who had a wonderful breakout last year with Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer as a decent, naive kid who seems unsure of what he wants in life, a quality many can relate to. Peters, meanwhile, is a total revelation as Warren. This is wholly different from his turn as Quicksilver in the new X-Men movies. He’s unpredictable, brazenly entitled, manipulative, profane, but also spiteful for no reason. His flawed logic for stealing the antique books is both insane and tragic, painting himself as more than just a sociopathic narcissist. It becomes disorderly and honestly somewhat unsettling when he becomes convinced that he can be just like a smooth criminal from the movies. From a purely technical point of view, there is an amazing amount of skill and confidence behind the camera. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s widescreen cinematography skillfully captures each environment and tone of each scene with grace. In some of the students’ imagined scenarios’, it’s all taken on slick, dynamic single-take shots. Other instances, like when things don’t seem to be going according to plan, it becomes very unsteady and shaky, at times a little disorienting. It also nails the atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and more hard-edged as the film goes along. The editing is a collaborative effort between Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley, and Julian Hart. It uses very precise cuts, moving back and forth from the acting portrayal to the real criminals themselves. For example, in one scene, Spencer begins a sentence, only to be finished by the real Spencer. It also works to create interesting visual contradictions between the subjects. A few hard cuts elicited a good laugh or two out of me. The musical score here is composed and conducted by Anne Nikitin, who had previously worked with Layton on The Imposter. The score is decidedly modern and appropriately moody for the material at hand, utilizing a number of synthesizers and severely low strings that would (hopefully) bring Johann Johannson back to life. She also uses some neat percussive instruments to wring out the tension in the viewer and softer electric guitar strums to provide an emotional through line. In some ways, it felt like a neverending crescendo as we watch the situation get more and more complicated. There are also a number of obscure songs from bygone rock and folk artists. It’s weird to say that songs by both Mobb Deep and The Doors fit perfectly in the same movie, but that’s how it is. Just like the original tracks, at times it’s playful and others it’s dead serious. I feel like this has a broader appeal than most audiences might think at first. Regular moviegoers will get to see an unconventional heist thriller, cinephiles will get to pick apart the various movie references laying about, and documentary fans will be satisfied with its taught approach. In other directors’ hands, this could have felt extremely forced or unappealing. Thankfully, with enough dramatic heft to match the stylish fun presented throughout, American Animals blends fact and fiction seamlessly into unique entertainment. Bart Layton is highly talented as a documentary filmmaker, but this shows he’s just as confident and comfortable with a narrative feature. Let’s hope both he and Evan Peters have amazing careers ahead of them.

Image result for american animals poster

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1 thought on ““American Animals” Movie Review

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: 2018 Superlatives | Geek's Landing

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