American Animals is a theft within a theft. The initial robbery, that of a rare book called Birds of America from the Transylvania University Library, is stylistically amusing and daring. A unique hybrid of true-crime documentary and caper, it’s a genre breaker of a film. Nevertheless, the second theft is one as old as America, a fascination with renegade privileged white males. It’s a trope, created by racial distinctions, that time-and-again has caused one race to be looked upon fondly, even applauded, while the other is left demonized.
In many ways, American Animals resembles last year’s I, Tonya. A true-life crime that attempts to somewhat recovers its subject(s)’ image. Much like I, Tonya, it’s also a marriage between documentarian filmmaking with live-action (though the former relied on actors to portray the characters in both fictional and documentary sequences).
American Animals is singular in its reliance on Warren, Spencer, Chas, and Eric. The non-actors playing themselves, as they look upon their physical counterparts committing their past heist, is daring. Their “fictional” counterparts comprise, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson, respectively. The blending of their sequences, fictional and nonfictional counterparts, often causes a degradation of the narrative. That is, American Animals‘ storytelling is based around a continuation of non-continuation. When Warren speaks, Evan Peter’s voice will mingle with his before solely continuing the story that Warren began. At times, one recounting will contradict the other. And much like I, Tonya, each individual recalls past events differently than the other. For example, Warren will remember meeting a guy with a purple scarf, while Spencer will recall one with a blue scarf.
In its purest sense, the “fictional” portions of the film could be considered standard reenactments that you’d find in a cheeseball documentary. Here, they never feel like reenactments. Each segment: the documentary and live-action, stand upon themselves. Much of that is to do with the staged appearance of the documentary, and the charisma and perceived spontaneousness of Spencer, Warren, Eric, and Chas. In fact, when I first watched American Animals at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, I assumed that the documentary segments featured actors. Warren is especially convincing, a ham if there ever was one. Their openness makes it easy to be attracted to them, if even their actions do not.
And while some have pointed toward this film changing how true-crime stories will be told, the four’s innate ability in front of a camera is rare, and leads me to believe that American Animals‘ template will be more difficult to copy than some may think.
However, if there’s one issue with the film, other than a drawn out third act, it’s the tone-deaf thought of glorifying such a story. These four college students, at the time, tased, bound, and gagged an unarmed woman. There was a legitimate possibility that someone could have been seriously injured or even killed. And other than a brief appearance from the real Betty Jean Gooch (played by white-hot streaking Ann Dowd), every person who appears in the film: teachers and parents, defend the boys.
If Bart Layton wants to take this documentarian style approach, then he also has to utilize its basic tennants. He has to push his subjects.
He also has to realize that in a world where black boys are thrown into jail for life for minor drug offenses, that displaying four middle-class white kids getting off with 7 years for a federal crime is egregiously tone deaf. It’s faultier when those four white kids’ only reason for pulling the caper is to “cross” the line because their middle class existence isn’t “special.”
And where I, Tonya examines class in America, the entirety of American Animals is white-male privilege run a muck. The film allows for its subjects to pull a second heist, a heist that American white males have pulled off with great regularity and success, a heist of the pardon. The few moments that critically analyze their actions are often swept aside by quips and moments of half-rememberings, such as the “whose idea was it” segments. Honestly, who cares? The segment comes off as a couple of snickering white-college bros who haven’t learned their lesson and know they’ve gotten away with something.
The whole ordeal results in another film where privileged white males are deemed to be Bonnie and Clyde-like figures, while young black men can’t get recognition for their own lives mattering. The social and cultural deficiencies of the American criminal justice system are probably of no concern to Layton’s film, which is not a negative judgment of him as he’s just trying to make the best possible film, but maybe they should be.
In actuality, there’s little reason to care about the four men at the film’s center, and even less purpose behind Layton depicting their story. Should we follow in their aggressive approach? Should we applaud them or scorn them?
American Animals is well made. The stylistic approach is a massive payoff. The film is humorous and loaded with expertly used film references, from Jaws to Reservoir Dogs. Every actor turns in a enthralling performance and the four subjects have sincere, intelligent, and charismatic personalities. But it doesn’t change the fact that making a film about them is an advertisement for while-male privilege in America.