Everyone has at some time in their life encountered the anxiety that comes with deciding to break the rules. Whether it was cutting class, or stealing condoms from a 7-11, or lying to your parents… Or perhaps something more severe.
The overwhelming feeling of crossing a line which there may be no coming back from has perhaps never been so well portrayed as in director Bart Layton’s career-defining American Animals.
By all accounts, this movie conforms to the tropes of a heist movie, but it’s an excellent film nonetheless. Far less concerned with sleek and sexy career criminals pulling off a suave Clooney bank robbery, or straddling a wire like Mission Impossible’s Tom Cruise. The story depicts the unbelievable, yet true story of four college friends who attempt an audacious art heist at their own university in Kentucky.
The first part of the film concerns the relationship between tweaked, criminal-minded Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), who ultimately instigates the whole affair and Spencer Reinhard, played by The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s (2017) Barry Keoghan. Keoghan’s character is the cool, sceptical but susceptible sidekick, with a much wider character range than his straight malevolence in the aforementioned Yorgos Lanthimos film. Interspersed with interviews from the real-life students (come burglars), we get a very real sense of this tainted relationship; spurring each other towards danger, like the characters in Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’.
Insight into the real Warren Lipka clearly shows the major motivation for the crimes as being a desperate attempt to escape the mundane. It’s hard not to find the ingenious plan appealing, and no doubt it is the sort of get-rich-quick scheme many twenty-somethings have nutted out in their parent’s basement, but few have actually followed through with.
The operation seems simple enough; relatively unguarded and extremely pricey historical books are on display at the college library, apparently with little to no security. After Lipka claims to have lined up a buyer in Amsterdam, the group begins to grow as they realise they need a tech wizard and a getaway driver. Hence come Chas Allen, rich jock, played quite comedically by Blake Jenner, and tech genius Eric Borsuk played by Jared Abrahamson (a moody Edward Snowden lookalike). The team’s dynamic definitely sets up your classic heist format and the actors’ on-screen chemistry makes for a very entertaining build-up.
But there is much more to this film than just a fun heist drama. This is not a moral film about the dangers of crime. Nor is it a grungy expression that revels in criminality. What you are left with is a complex film, exacerbating the anxiety and demons which plagued the actual perpetrators of this bold art theft gone awry. The consequences of guilt when accidental violence trumps out. Something rings very true about the college relationships and interpersonal friendships built out of a common desire to escape the ordinary world.
These kids could be anybody, and I think that’s what so appealing about them. If this film was released in a different time, it might have spoken to a generation as fast as something cult/mainstream as Go (1999). The movie contains a raw and unflinching look at the deeper drives of human beings not often explored in modern cinema.
Interspersed with animal imagery from one of the biology books the group are stealing, the cinematography evokes the jungle of modern urban life, whilst still maintaining an integrity to its characters and central themes.
American Animals is ballsy and interesting. Yes, maybe it follows some cliches of indy twenty-somethings films, with a fitting rock soundtrack and numerous oft repeated genre tropes. But American Animals has more to say about humanity than a lot of other films which have filtered through the industry in recent years.
The director originally approached Warren and the others about the film while they were still incarcerated for the crime. The resulting relationship that developed culminated in the final film, after they were released.