“A bird alone could have extricated himself from that place”
The nature of a bridge is to get an individual from two desired destinations across unwanted terrain. When it comes to Bart Layton’s newest installment, it is this unwanted terrain that predominates the film’s otherwise clever inundation of the actual primary figures and stellar exit music that makes its seem worthwhile so long as you’ve stopped keeping track of your chips. To quote Brian Tallerico (Rogert Ebert): “[i]t’s a film that feels thrilling at times in the way it breaks traditional narrative/documentary form, but that’s not enough to get past its many missteps, including a story that ultimately rings shockingly hollow.”
American Animals follows the lives of four college students: Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), who seem to be disenchanted with their immediately circumstances and some weirdly willing to spend time in prison to reconnect with old friends. The four venture in a plot to attempt to steal several rare books from the Transylvania University library, including a first edition Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and, the main target ,Birds of America by John James Audubon. Somehow they fail to secure the necessary intel for the getaway and prove to be about as competent as they appear to be in pulling off what appears to be a strangely basic robbery. While I still think that Keoghan is among the finest young actors today (see, e.g., Killing of a Sacred Deer), seeing him wasted on such pointless college drivel is disheartening.
With thin source material and a relatively uneventful development of story, the only thing that American Animals has going for it is the common knowledge references to the hardship of artists (e.g. Van Gogh, Monet) at the beginning and a finely executed ending with a choice track to help the audience forget that they just sat through a soporific hour of circus-like planning that goes about as well as you can expect. I understand that the film’s partial purpose is to act as a deterrent to wannabe criminals, but Requiem for a Dream had the same intended effect and its end product was brilliant.
It is clear that Layton had a few clever ideas and had to drag them out like a capable writer at the beginning and end of the film to distract from that middle plot peddling. It is clear that Layton also could have drastically improved his writing by simply doing what Lars Von Trier did so masterfully in Nymphomaniac (definitely not safe for children) and thread the academic zoology into the narrative instead of wasting his energy trying to entertain the audience with daft characters.
When it comes to heist movies, you have those films that are worth watching, e.g., Ocean’s 11, The Sting, The Killing, Inside Man, and Bottle Rocket (to name a few)—and, then you have your overrated garbage that critics these days seem to embrace for lack of taste, e.g., Logan Lucky (93%, 2017), Rogue Nation (93%, 2015), and Baby Driver (93%, 2017)—ranked #11, 3, and 1 (respectively) on the list of best rated heist films of all time. Somehow I believe that the critics will figure this one out, but with inflated reviews like a 4.5/5 from Alan Ng (Film Threat) and an A- from Jason Gorber (Dork Shelf), it’s hard to stay optimistic.