FilmSpace: American Animals

Film critic Scott Wilson asks if American Animals, a film validating toxic masculinity-fuelled crime, is really what the world needs right now

American Animals – ★☆☆☆☆

Dissecting the heist genre in his recent Secrets of Cinema series, film critic Mark Kermode made the whole thing look effortlessly cool. Not always – sometimes plans go wrong, and sometimes there is no million dollar price-tag on the object being nicked. But, most of the time, heist films showcase camaraderie, an us-against-the-world mentality, and typically involve more than just a little glam. Looking at you, Ocean’s 8.

How enjoyable they are often rests upon this coolness. Like the recent Murder on the Orient Express, time spent in the company of an impressive ensemble can be time well spent regardless of the overall quality of the film. If it happens to involve some neat twists and turns along the way, all the better.

American Animals, detailing a real-life library heist carried out by four boys in Kentucky, deliberately pays homage to and subverts a number of these tropes. There is a nod to Reservoir Dogs as they talk through their plan, complete with bickering over who gets to be Mr Pink. They sit round a miniature model of the room they will break into, ensuring everyone knows where to be and when. Before setting out to do something different, first there must be this familiarity.

Fuelled by a sense of entitlement, protected by their gender, their skin colour, their attendance at university, American Animals – depressingly, inevitably –  sympathises with them, turning their story into folklore, giving them the attention they always wanted.

That something different is the boys themselves. Barry Keoghan’s Spencer Reinhard is a talented art student, fed up with anonymity. Where Lady Bird wished to live through something, Spencer just wants something to happen. After a tour of the university’s library, he floats the idea of stealing John James Audubon’s The Birds of America from the special collections to his volatile friend Warren Lipka, played by Evan Peters. The idea takes hold, becoming an obsession of Warren’s, as Spencer grows increasingly apathetic. Realising the operation requires more than two people, they enlist Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) for specialist know-how and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) as their getaway driver.

All the while, the film cuts to the real men behind the crime giving their version of events to camera. Spencer, as subdued as Keoghan plays him, tells it all a little differently from Warren, who is still a tad eccentric. Whenever they disagree, the film rewinds and tells it from the other’s perspective, toying with the idea of an unreliable narrator.

Toying, because this playfulness amounts to nothing other than doubt among the men that certain events even happened at all, predominantly during moments when Warren went off on his own. A scene involving him meeting some shady dealers in Amsterdam is something he swears happened, but some of the other men remain unconvinced.

There is no faulting a performance like Keoghan’s, one of the best young actors working today. He fills Spencer with a pathetic ennui, quietly pissed because the world is not noticing him. Flirting with crime is his lashing out, and all it takes is Warren’s more nihilistic impulses to push him into a full-on dalliance.

This bright kid, a clearly competent artist, throws his potential away for a sick thrill brought about by a sense of entitlement that the world owes him more. It gives the film an ugly heart, kept pumping by toxic masculinity, giving the boys the bravado and delusion to even attempt such a thing. It is supposed to be a cautionary tale for the ungrateful.

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As a heist film case study, American Animals isn’t captivating. The boys spend most of the film panicking over their inability to commit to an aggressive act, and the heist itself is a sad state of affairs, involving the physical abuse of a librarian. It is dully lit, appropriately robbing the heist of any glam, but in turn making the film feel oppressive. It is rarely fun to spend any time in.

Worst of all though is how the film’s existence validates Spencer’s initial urge. If what he wanted was notoriety, here is a film in which he tells his story to the camera centre-frame. By giving him and the other men a platform, the film bestows them the infamy they set out to achieve fifteen years ago. Fuelled by a sense of entitlement, protected by their gender, their skin colour, their attendance at university, American Animals – depressingly, inevitably –  sympathises with them, turning their story into folklore, giving them the attention they always wanted.

In a week where The Miseducation of Cameron Post is also released, a film about gay conversion therapy camps in America, the poisonous path to American Animals is made abundantly clear. Not only was toxic masculinity the impetus to commit the crime, but it is what ultimately rewarded the boys with a film to talk about it. It made good on their entitlement.

If American Animals is to be a cautionary tale, then the tale is this: you can be an entirely average white man, you can be desperate for attention and go about it in all the wrong ways, you can abuse a woman and go to jail for your crimes, and still you can be rewarded with the one thing you always wanted – just to be noticed. Is this what the world needs right now?

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