Cinema Review: American Animals

Posted September 5, 2018 in Cinema Reviews

NCH – 25 sep-3 oct-22 Desktop

Director: Bart Layton

Talent: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd

Released: 7 September

Remember when you finally got to college and you found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be? That instead of artistic expression, personal liberation and hordes of friends, you were confronted with an anticlimax. Perhaps you were dismayed to find that the routine of secondary school was simply replaced with new social codes resulting from the aimlessness of sudden freedom, you and your peers enfeebled from a lifetime of passive learning, full of yearning with no obvious means to express your inner intensities.  Okay, could’ve just been me.

Still, Bart Layton’s riveting follow-up to 2012’s The Imposter uses this ennui as the backdrop and impetus for the heist at the centre of his rich film-cum-documentary. Early on the two main characters Spencer (Keoghan – impressing yet again) and Warren (Peters – a dead ringer for Malcolm McDowell) pine for some event that will liberate them. Viewers will be hard pressed not to relate to their restless disaffection and naive aspiration – the hallmarks of youth. Together the duo dream up the idea of stealing rare books from their University’s library.

While The Imposter was three quarters documentary with blurry reenactments, this one is the reverse, the documentary parts adding to pathos of the action. The events are narrated by the real present-day perpetrators. At first, I was worried about this brew of fact and fiction, it having irked me in other features in the past, but it’s pulled off here with great panache.  Layton avoids falling between two stools by blending the narratives and interviews to make a unique tapestry. We get variations on scenes according to the interviewees differing accounts; doubts are constantly being cast over scenes with interviewees mis-remembering, and, at times, likely fabricating. The actors break the fourth wall, their voices suddenly transitioning into their real-life future selves and, even more audaciously, the interviewees are parachuted into the action to quibble about the veracity of accounts or simply to look on in horror – the most inspired example of this is when Spencer, on the way to the heist, sees his future self staring fatefully at the car. The real-life thieves haunt the characters like ghosts from the future.

All this trickery makes for a lot of fun, but of course the larks that both the film and the characters are having can’t last, with things getting more sombre as the heist is botched in queasy, nerve jangling fashion. Its stark nastiness is contrasted masterfully with a wish-fulfilment sequence where the boys, looking suave, undertake the heist with minimal effort, painlessly ‘neutralising’ the librarian with an equanimity that rivals the Oceans’ crew. The real heist nearly induced an anxiety attack in me.

The inevitable comedown, though necessary, is perhaps a bit too protracted. While it surely is important to reflect on the pain the heist caused the families and the librarian, things get a bit lumbering with the interviewees summarising what you’ve just seen. These parts could have been skimmed down, but perhaps Layton felt obliged to do justice those hurt whom he interviewed.

Summations are hardly necessary when Layton is so good at packing his frames with poignant reminders of what the boys are losing, like Spencer’s many sketches. Spencer was clearly destined to be an artist – this would’ve made him special in the way he dreamed about. By reaching recklessly for the stars, he forsook the gold that was right under his nose.

The freshest heist film in a long time.

Words: Rory Kiberd


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