American Animals is a True Crime Story Focused on “Why?”

While struggling over this review for the last few days there’s a line that keeps coming up in my head. “I kept waiting for the insurmountable odds that would make the whole thing impossible…” says the real-life Spencer in one of his interviews before trailing off (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s close). That line, more than anything, is what defined what was appealing about American Animals to me. Why do people do bad things? Maybe the answer is because… they can?

Let’s back up. American Animals, for the most part, is a heist film. Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) has just started college at Transylvania University (a real place, apparently!) in Lexington, Kentucky. He is an aspiring artist, but feels that nothing profound enough has happened in his life yet to give his art any verve. College life holds little appeal to him and he spends most of his time with his high school friend, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a bit of a “bad influence”. They drive around, smoke weed, hang out in parking lots. Nothing seems to be going on for them until one day Spencer takes a tour of Transylvania University’s library led by Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd). In the room for rare books Spencer sees a book illustrated by Audubon. The price tag? 12 million dollars. Somehow (the movie is coy about who in particular floats the idea) the boys decide to steal it. For their effort they recruit Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner). Cut between the reenactment of the true stories are interviews with the present day real life burglars, reflecting both how the plan came together and what they were thinking at the time.

It’s a true story, something the movie takes great pains to remind us of (early on we’re told “this isn’t based a true story” only to have it morph to “this is a true story”), which is fitting right now. True crime seems to be on the upswing, and with good reason: there is always a mystery baked in to true crime stories. Some, if unresolved, depend on a “what really happened” or “who is the culprit” – look only at Casting Jon Benet, a cousin of American Animals in its structure and general aspirations. However, while American Animals also relies on interviews to reflect the inner mechanisms of the people involved, and invite speculation, it doesn’t have a similar “who done it” vibe – we know who did it and how they did it because they’re sitting right there looking at us. Instead, we’re left with the question I stated above. Why?

Shockingly, or perhaps not too shockingly, the inclusion of the actual culprits does little to shine a light on the why. Its apparent early on that almost every interviewee is focused on shifting the blame away from themselves (excluding Warren, who seems to revel in both the crime, his rehabilitation, and the ambiguity of his motivation). The others, however, seem equally shocked they ever pulled the heist. No one, it seems, not even the perpetrators, can fathom what was going on in the heads of these kids.

But enough about that. You want to hear about the movie itself, no? It’s shockingly and disturbingly fun, honestly. The heist itself is simultaneously extremely low stakes and extremely high stakes. The amount of money they’re trying to steal is massive… but at the moment its embodied as heavy books in a library, things that most people would say look to be mostly worthless. The amount of effort it’ll take? For hardened criminals, it’d be laughable. For college kids… challenging. And the amount of pain they’ll inflict? Again, the movie balances this well: they’ll just have to tie up one librarian. No one will get hurt. No one is going to be killed. One person will be maybe roughed up a little. It sounds innocuous, but when faced with actually doing it, to doing it to a real life person, while remaining small it also becomes huge.

The heist is also… fun. It’s immediately obvious that the reason the boys originally set down the path is because they’re bored and heist movies are great (in a hilarious scene they watch some famous heist flicks for “research”). They do recon. Map out the library. Come up with disguises. Buy a getaway car. Synchronize watches. It’s honestly an absolute blast, something that is constantly and rightly at war with the gravity of what they’re actually doing. While watching it I was honestly frequently disappointed to cut to a real life interview, because of how wrapped up in the mechanics of the plot I was. It’s a pulse pounding well paced movie save for those cutaways. Not that there’s a solution: the cutaways are an absolutely integral part of the film, and after leaving the theater I was thankful for them even if in the moment I wanted to return to the action.

At the end of the day I had a really tough time writing this review, which is good. I don’t know if it’s a great movie, but it’s definitely a good movie, and it’s compact and complex enough that I had a genuinely tough time picking a thread to yank at. Everything feels necessary and deeply interconnected, and I would strongly advise going to see this film even if you end up not loving it. It’s goofy, brutal, and thought provoking. It raises the question “why” and while it supplies options it wisely never quite offers an answer. Maybe there just isn’t one?

I give American Animals 8 out paintings of birds out of ten forgotten tasers.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • From a technical standpoint the movie is never flashy but is extremely efficient. I can’t recall any particular shot that stuck with me, other than the close ups of the Audubon book itself, which is well fetishsized, but the shots also never felt boring or wrong to me. The editing, meanwhile, did a fantastic job of ratcheting up tension and, equally important in movies of this nature, both the cinematography and editing did a great job of allowing me to understand the space we were operating in.
  • Acting is a little tough to assess in this movie, because not only are the actors playing real people, they’re intercut with the real people they’re playing. I want the actors to feel comfortable inhabiting the role in their own way, but also felt the constant need to compare them up to the person they were playing. My take: Jared Abrahamson maybe best nailed the person he was supposed to embody, but all four actors gave fantastic performances. Both Peters and Keoghan gave compelling and complex performances (Jenner is given less to do) but they didn’t quite feel like their older actors. Warren in particular has a sort of goofy charisma Peters seemed unable to totally get down, though the others cited it as an essential part of the whirlwind they found themselves in (and it’s obvious in Warren’s actual interviews).
  • By allowing the boys to tell their own stories I feel sympathy is tipped maybe a little too much towards them. I’m not sure. Just a thought.
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