An easy way to suggest that a tangled story about desperate people brushes up against profundity is to throw the word “American” in the title. So it goes with Bart Layton’s dreary, infuriating based-on-real-stupidity heist drama American Animals. Like I, Tonya, the film winkingly dramatizes an incident of criminal violence planned and executed by dipshits and then suggests it tells us something about the Way We All Live Now. Here, though, the pseudo-documentary interview segments actually star the real criminals, four handsome young men whose cut jawlines suggest there’s some truth to the belief that prison offers a good chance to get some serious gym time.
Led by rudderless stoners Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters), college dudes personally offended that they’re expected to work to get anyplace in this life, the quartet plots a half-assed robbery of million-dollar rare books (a Birds of America, an On the Origin of Species) from a Kentucky university library. They persist in their scheme even after two ugly truths become clear. First: The heist will depend upon assaulting and restraining a librarian. Second: Only one of the four bros has the stomach to handle that. The rest insist in performing other roles but still getting their cut of the sale of the books to some Amsterdam fences. The movie suggests that it’s only afterward, when the crime goes wrong, that the young men understand there’s no moral distinction between actually performing the assault themselves and profiting from it. It’s easy to wonder: If they’d gotten away with it, would they still all be so torn up about it?
Yes, torn up about it. Layton (director of the 2012 documentary The Impostor) cuts from a tense, upsetting dramatization of the attack on the librarian (Ann Dowd) to quick shots of the real criminals looking pained and ashamed. I don’t doubt that their revulsion at facing their past is genuine, though there’s something pitiless in the way Layton shows us the tears of both the real perpetrators and the actors portraying them. That the actors’ proved more convincing to me is almost certainly a consequence of the performers’ confidence in front of a camera.
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The very existence of these scenes belies the central argument the filmmakers’ have crafted American Animals to make. Again and again, we’re told that these guys chose to do this because they wanted to matter in the world — one resorts to the old we were told we were special cant as explanation. Even the actual librarian they assaulted echoes this, noting in a climactic interview segment that the boys were so “selfish” in their zeal to be somebody that her pain seemed to them justifiable. So I must ask: Why reward the bastards with exactly what they wanted by putting them on screen in a movie? Now they are special, you yutzes! They plug their current gigs and artistic projects. One shows off his tats. The only price they paid for it: one woman’s pain, seven years in prison and a willingness to exhibit remorse on cue.
I haven’t mentioned the race of the perpetrators. You can guess, of course: For all its jittery heist drama, American Animals is, above all else, an accidental study in just how much white kids can get away with and still be welcomed back into society. The second word of the title suggests that the filmmakers aren’t charmed by their subjects, but the film itself — so eager to show us that the animals, too, are shocked by their behavior — presents the crime as just the mistake of bored kids, a dumb idea that spun out of control. Rather than plumb the apparent sociopathy that gripped these young men, Layton toys with unreliable narration and the vagaries of collective memory. (When much ado was made of whether one minor character’s scarf was purple, I scribbled WHO CARES across a full page of my notebook.)
Look, I’m glad their lives weren’t ruined forever over all this. And I’m glad the librarian is doing well. But the movie turned my stomach. Sometimes that was intentional: Layton and his actors excel at capturing dudes losing their cool, and American Animals emphasizes the raw physiology of panic. The heist sequence has a nervy, handheld look, with intentionally grating, often repetitious noises on the soundtrack gnawing at the boys. Entering the library on the day of the robbery, dressed in horrid old-man makeup, some of the crew pant and fight back tears as they psych themselves up to do what seemed so easy in the planning stages. The assault is protracted, messy, soiling, the way violence in real life is. Lead heist-dope Warren keeps apologizing to the librarian when not screaming at her. As he tries to figure out the details they should have thought through — where to get keys to display cases, how to haul away all three volumes of Birds of America — she crawls toward the door to escape. He drags her back with surprising tenderness. I wish that more movies’ depictions of violence were this miserable.
The actors, to their credit, never try to charm us — they play these no-empathy idiots as no-empathy idiots. Still, Layton tries to wring some laughs from the crew’s study of movie heists, especially in a protracted sequence in which they assign each other Reservoir Dogs-style nicknames. Of course, one bro objects to getting “Mr. Pink” — assaulting the librarian is fine, but that’s too much. That they’re inspired by a film where the robbery goes wrong and almost everyone dies might have been an illuminating irony. But by coupling the horror of committing the crime with the present-day reassurance that these guys mostly turned out OK, American Animals dashes away its own moral authority. It promises that crime doesn’t pay — but it can get you in the movies.