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Non-Review Review: American Animals

“To do this thing would take extraordinary effort,” observers Warren Lipka of his fiendish heist scheme in American Animals. “Not ordinary effort.”

Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is a blend of documentary and dramatisation. It explores the true story of the effort by four young men to steal a collection of precious books from the Library of Transylvania, a scheme that went disastrously and spectacularly wrong. Adopting a style that recalls Bernie or a slightly more grounded I, Tonya, Layton slices interviews with the real-life criminals into a narrative reconstruction of the attempted crime. The results are intriguing, occasionally veering into an exploration of the malleability of memory and the limits of personal perspective.

Up to their old tricks.

At the same time, American Animals is very much engaged with a masculine middle-class malaise. A recurring motif of the film has various figures from around the four criminals pause to reflect upon the character of these young men. “They were good kids,” various talking heads assert over the course of the documentary, talking fondly about their childhoods and their schoolwork and their aspirations. The four young men at the heart of American Animals did not plan (and botch) a heist because they were bad kids or because they needed the money. They did not act out of desperation or anger.

Instead, American Animals suggests that the characters enacted this ambitious and absurd scheme out of a sense of boredom, out of a desire to escape the mundanity of their everyday lives, to do something “extraordinary” to transcend their so-called “ordinary” lives.

Model citizens.

American Animals offers a sketch of masculinity in crisis. This crisis is not economic or literal. It is existential. It is a crisis of identity, of young men trying to find a reason or a place in the world. Justifying their scheme, Lipka boasts, “We’re supposed to be hunter-gatherers.” It is suggested that his schemes stem from a sense of inadequacy tied to the fact that he has little need to hunt or gather. (He is introduced stealing food from a butchers.) Similarly, Spencer Reinhard meditates on his own feelings of worthlessness, “Art has to be about more than ‘my life is great and I can draw very well.'”

American Animals returns time and time again to the idea that the four kids at the centre of the story were the textbook definition of “good kids.” They each had a proper education and a loving family. Each of the four were enrolled in college when they began planning the heist, although Lipka would abandon his sports scholarship shortly beforehand. At least three of the four had futures mapped out, prospects that were firmly within grasp; Spencer Reinhard wanted to be an artist, Chas Allen wanted to go into business, Eric Borsuk wanted to be an FBI agent.

The art of the heist.

This anxiety permeates popular culture, and perhaps larger culture in general. It seemed to flare up at the end of the twentieth century, following the end of the Cold War. (Indeed, the group planned and executed the heist in 2004.) Although the details of this story are unique, it will undoubtedly resonate with audience members who have seen countless iterations of the same narrative play out in real life and in fiction. Young men from privileged backgrounds who immigrate overseas to fight for terrorist organisations. The average profile of a mass shooter being “male, Caucasian, middle class, lonely, alienated.”

This archetype has been repeatedly explored and deconstructed in fiction. Indeed, American Animals seems to consciously and explicitly engage with the spectre of Fight Club, perhaps the most iconic and enduring example of the trope. Fight Club perfectly captured that sense of masculine anxiety at the the turn of the millennium, of a generation of young men who had grown up in a climate of relative peace and stability with no wars to fight and no worlds to conquer. Although those men had grown up with financial and political security, they had struggled in an abstract and existential sense.

Going by the book.

American Animals evokes Fight Club in a number of ways. Most overtly, Bart Layton repeatedly questions the reliability of his narrators and the reality of the subjective experiences portrayed on screen. Early in the film, Warren and Spencer disagree over where a conversation took place, so the scene cuts across two versions. Later in the story, Spencer questions whether certain events articulated by Warren took place at all; Layton emphasises this uncertainty by subtly changing details within the scene or replaying it slightly differently. Asked how much of his story is true, Warren states, “You’ll just have to take my word for it.”

More fundamentally, Spencer’s articulation of his own desire for some greater meaning and Warren’s yearning to accomplish something “extraordinary” both speak to that masculine crisis. At the centre of both American Animals and Fight Club is a clear desire on the part of these young men to do something, to accomplish something, to assert their masculinity and to prove that they are special. At one point, Spencer talks about his conflicting impulses during the planned, being caught between the pull of “the adventure” and the desire for some “obstacle” to prevent him from realising that adventure.

In need of arrest.

Of course, the irony of American Animal is that no such obstacles exist. These four young men come from a background of wealth and privilege, and have never been properly challenged in their lives. Indeed, even their plan to have that “adventure” is treated as something of a sham. The heist that they attempt isn’t particularly complicated, and it is not as if they set themselves against a particularly threatening opponent. Even embarking on a crime, society privileges these four young men; the University of Transylvania clearly never expected this sort of behaviour, and so the four men commit the crime with minimum resistance.

Similarly, American Animals repeatedly draws attention to how the four young men are not so much chasing a tangible and genuine experience as they are attempting to emulate one. Warren’s “research” for the heist consists of watching movies like Rififi, while he plays out the heist in his head to the familiar sound of A Little Less Conversation from Ocean’s Eleven and even adopts colour-coded nicknames from Reservoir Dogs despite the fact that the characters all know one another. (“It’s probably my least-favourite Tarantino film,” the real Eric Borsuk concedes.)

Their plot has aged well.

It is in these moments that American Animals feels most insightful, observing how even the pursuit of a “real” experience for these young men is filtered through the lens of fabricated imagery. The heist at the centre of American Animals focuses on the characters trying to steal a book of paintings, but the truth is that the four young men themselves are living inside their own simulacrum. Warren and Spencer claim to want to have a meaningful and profound personal experience, but instead aspire to recreate something that has been packaged and sold through decades of popular culture.

In this sense, as much as in the juxtaposition of talking heads footage and narrative recreation, the lines between reality and fiction blur. At several points over the course of American Animals, both Warren and Spencer wander into the film’s narrative sections; Warren has a brief conversation with his fictional self in the car, while Spencer watches his fictional self drive towards the university. This is not just reality intruding into fiction, it also suggests how fiction has itself spilled out into reality, how Warren and Spencer are perhaps still trapped within a narrative they cobbled together from a marathon of heist movies.

Does this Warren(t) such brutality?

Still, there are points at which American Animals feels a little too belaboured and a little too superficial. From the outset, it is very clear where American Animals is going in a moral and thematic sense. Layton anchors most of the film in the perspective of these four young men embarking in an unlikely adventure together, but it becomes quite clear very early on how the narrative will inevitably turn on these four figures. It isn’t necessarily that the shift in focus in the final few minutes of American Animals wrong-foots the audience, so much as it is very obvious from the early minutes of the film what the pivot will be.

Indeed, the big takeaway of American Animals is presented in a scathing moral judgment late in the film, provided by a character who spends most of the film on the periphery of the narrative. This criticism is entirely fair and justified. More than that, it is arguably necessary. After all, the masculinity-in-crisis narrative of Fight Club has been eagerly embraced by an audience without any sense of irony. However, there is something distracting in how American Animals tries to hold back this judgment, particularly given that it seems to be the only possible way to end a story like this.

Paying Lip(ski) service…

Nevertheless, American Animals is a bold and striking piece of filmmaking, a compelling study of modern middle-class masculine malaise.

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