A deceptively deep look into the consequences of crime, youth, or simply boredom, Animals is a little story of naive innocence and queasy brutality. A hidden gem, get your hands on this one ASAP if you can.
What Works: The unique blend of “dramocumentary” supports ideas brought on by a strong script and direction.
It is serendipitous, to the point of doubt, that American Animals released right around the time of Ocean’s 8. There is no better comparison to illustrate the “point” of American Animals than to compare it to the Ocean’s franchise.
Ocean’s has always shown the fun side of the heist, of a group of pals dressing up and executing a perfect plan that inevitably goes a little wrong. But don’t worry – they’re all beautiful and smart, or at least adaptable, and with a lot of charm and a dash of luck, everything will go their way. Hurray for the bank robbers! After all, they steal from the right.
American Animals begs you to remember that as you watch. It reminds you of the long history of Hollywood heists, and how easy and effortless – even innocent – it all is. These are kids having fun, boys being boys, etc. What’s the harm in dreaming?
And then it turns on its heel and throws the corpse of this idea dead at your feet. It sneers at you, that you had the audacity to believe in this fairytale. Because in real life, innocent people get hurt. And not in an abstract way, but in a deep, visceral, psycho-emotional way that never goes away.
To say more is to spoil a fantastic non-twist, something that is obvious, but you don’t want it to be, so you deny it.
Suffice to say, American Animals is far more than a blended documentary/dramatization about a real-life art heist. It is a deconstruction of a genre and an idea, owing more to Dostoevsky than any The Italian Job-esque work.
The most interesting mechanic is the way that interviews with the actual members of the heist are interwoven with the dramatizations. To make this work, and ensure the cuts don’t detract from the emotional or plot momentum, requires the kind of exquisite pacing American Animals displays from moment one.
What Doesn’t: Some performances are a little dry – but maybe for a good reason.
A strange aspect of the execution of this story is the almost empty nature of its characters, with the exception of Evan Peters’ portrayal. For the most part, each character embodies one characteristic, and very little else. Barry Keoghan is reserved and quiet, Jared Abrahamson is contemplative, and Blake Jenner is a jock. They don’t move beyond the tropes of those personality types.
But this could be due to the inclusion of the actual real-life members of this heist. Over the course of the movie, their interview answers begin to reveal more about who they really were. As an audience, you make assumptions based on their dress, surrounding, and first impression. Slowly but surely, these assumptions are deconstructed.
By having “blank canvas” characters, the audience can fill them out with the information provided by their real-life counterparts. Ironically, this makes the characters incredibly realistic, despite their one-note performances.
Beyond the Screen: The power of class and race are illustrated perfectly here.
I had an issue connecting with this story by the end, and it all relied on one specific source: at least three of these kids seem to have rather cushy lives.
Now, this only comes from what is shown of the characters; I have no information as to the real-life circumstances of the boys. But what is shown is wealth and excess that gnaws at my ability to sympathize.
For example, Keoghan’s house is shown twice. He has a sister, a mother, and a father, who inhabit a very nice house. And his hang up, the source of his conflict, is that he’s dissatisfied. Bored. Looking for something a little exciting to indulge in.
Is his general sense of ennui legitimate? Yes. This is something that can be easily sympathized with, especially among late-teens to twenty-somethings that grew up post-9/11 and/or post-Recession.
But what creates the disconnect with the narrative is knowing how this could have played differently if the boys had been non-white, if they had been poorer, or suffering from more severe mental illness. They may not have ever been allowed in the library comfortably. They may not have gotten away with their lives.
“The unbelievable but true story of four young men who brazenly attempt to execute one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Determined to live lives that are out of the ordinary, they formulate a daring plan for the perfect robbery, only to discover that the plan has taken on a life of its own.” -Rotten Tomatoes