American Animals

A few weeks ago I received an invite to a screening of American Animals in Glasgow which would be accompanied afterwards by a Q&A with director Bart Layton. I already had something else planned for that evening, but this could easily be cancelled so I headed over to my favourite review site RogerEbert.com where I had a quick swatch to see what they had to say about the film.

The first paragraph of their review made the assertion that it was a rip-off of I, Tonya and awarded a two star rating. I decided against going. The next day an email from a friend who did attend informed me that he’d found it utterly compelling, so when American Animals opened officially in Britain today I was keen to judge it for myself.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is a directionless though gifted art student who believes his life needs the drama and suffering experienced by his favourite painters like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Egon Schiele.

A visit to the special collections room of Transylvania University (which in case your wondering, is a real uni in Lexington, Kentucky) sows the seeds of an idea that will ultimately, if he is right, provide him with the kind of life altering drama required to push on his art.

American Animals tells the story of Reinhard and his pal Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), who hatch an audacious scheme to steal an original folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America – possibly the most valuable book in existence – which is guarded only by one senior librarian named Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd).

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The conspirators’ plan will strike you as far fetched, even unbelievable if you didn’t know the events are based on a true story. This is not a team of experienced criminals. These are two students from what are routinely termed ‘good homes’ as their parents explain early on.

From the very start this is slickly shot and fast-paced. Layton, who had previously been best known for his documentary The Imposter, includes documentary-style inserts with the four actual perpetrators of the crime – Spencer and Warren are later joined by two more young middle class pals, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, played by Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner.

These real-life characters really resemble older versions of the actors that play them and they give their versions of events which don’t always match up. Sometimes they even happily admit that their own memories can be hazy and one even wonders if Lipka has totally invented a trip abroad to meet some shady characters who might be able to punt their plunder on the black market.

This is a risky move by Layton, but it proves intriguing albeit it will might strike some as overly tricksy. At one point Evan Peters as Warren Lipka is joined by Warren Lipka to discuss the veracity of a scene. And I have to admit here, when the real Lipka was first introduced, with his toothy smile, showing off his Tyrannosaurus Rex tattoo, I assumed that he had to be an actor.

The score by Anne Nikitin is highly effective, especially as the action is cranked up and some of the existing tracks chosen are equally inspired although I’m Alive (a great track) by Johnny Thunder and New York Groove by Ace Frehley are just too on the nose for my tastes – and the original ‘Groove by British glamsters Hello is the better anyway.

Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man has been utilised in soundtracks before, such as when David Fincher chose it for the opening and closing of Zodiac and it works fantastically here with that frazzled guitar and curious vocal style. There’s also some unexpected gems like Crucify Your Mind by Rodriguez, Vitamin C by Can and Peace Frog by The Doors:

Calling American Animals a ‘rip-off of I, Tonya’ baffles me. Okay, we hear conflicting views of events in that film too, though via actors, rather than the real-life Tonya Harding, her mother and ex-husband. Would the team behind American Animals have even seen Craig Gillespie’s movie while making their own? I would guess it had already been shot before I, Tonya had achieved any release.

‘We’re supposed to feel sorry for the crooks,’ Odie Henderson, the Roger Ebert reviewer complained, although this is plainly nonsense. We’re obviously supposed to feel sorry for the impeccably polite librarian and are made aware in advance that the students realise that what they require to do to ‘neutralise’ her is utterly repulsive. You’re very odd if you can muster up much sympathy for anybody capable of tasering an older woman, tying her up and taping her mouth shut. The director even shows the consequences of their actions. The old lady pees herself.

And just think about that title. American Animals?

Henderson did give some credit for the fact the real Betty Jean Gooch was allowed to condemn the wannabe thieves and he also enjoyed a cameo from Udo Kier as one of the two shady fences who Lipka meets in what the reviewer mistakenly calls Holland despite the difference between Holland and the Netherlands being hinted at during a discussion between Lipka and Reinhard. He also wrote that ‘I wanted to run off with him to whatever heist he might be doing.’ Come on, fences only move on stolen goods, they don’t take part in the robberies themselves. I could go on.

American Animals never drags and is very enjoyable although not nearly as good as some of the movies like The Killing that Lipka and Reinhard watch in the run-up to their heist. The pair’s taste for crime dramas is demonstrated again when Lipka insists on giving each of the team names inspired by Reservoir Dogs, Chas Allen being branded Mr Pink ‘just to fuck with him.’

It made me think, it made me laugh – sometimes very uneasily – and it made me want to see whatever Layton decides to direct next. Hopefully, I can even get to see it along with a Q&A.

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