The sounds of birds chirping and crickets grinding knee bones underscores the brief procession of film financiers and production company logos that precede American Animals. Then a quote from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species introduces the film, something about migrating creatures that slowly moved from “the outer world into the the deeper and deeper recesses of the Kentucky caves.” Not knowing anything about the film before going in, my palms begin to sweat at the thought of another angry but uninspired animal activist documentary about endangered species.
Trailer for American Animals
But after a few minutes, I happily determined that what was on screen was not just another wide-ranging documentary on free range animals, but rather a shrewdly-wound, plot-driven heist picture. The only animals to be found were in the pages of John James Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America and Birds of America — part of the swag in a bizarre and overbold real-life robbery scheme — and the only traps in sight were the ones set by our four plucky jocks, for whom the successful execution of this caper was never in the stars.
For every great documentary that’s been spun, there are dozens of cine-illiterate, shoot-now-figure-it-out-later examples that exist solely to spit out talking points in choking closeup. I try my best not to know anything about a movie before taking my seat, and truth be told, I feel a pang of disappointment whenever I arrive at a screening expecting to see a narrative film and instead wind up with a procession of babbling heads. Documentarians who tell me everything yet show me nothing should be drummed out of the corps and forced to find work filming news reporters in hot pursuit of kitten-up-a-tree human interest pieces. In pleasant contrast, AA is a narrative drama wherein beats the heart of a documentary.
The following email suggestion came from one of our town’s preeminent publicists: “Have you seen The Imposter by Bart? Also worth checking out.” (Bart refers to AA’s writer/director Bart Layton, and the documentary The Imposter was his previous picture.) At this point I had fully intended to thank the rep, but each time I mention a publicist by name — even in the most flattering light — there is hell to pay. So allow me to pass on the recommendation on to you.
Matthew Lickona called The Imposter, “A talky talking-heads documentary, but one that spins a tale dizzying enough to keep the drama going.” True that! Viewing The Imposter before AA is not essential, but it sure would help. The films are companion pieces, by reason of the fact the one is an inversion of the other. If Layton applied more of a narrative feel to his documentary, American Animals benefits greatly by having a smattering of real-life elements mixed in with his storytelling approach.
Having served over seven years apiece for their participation in the failed robbery, our four card-carrying ex-cons are given supporting roles, adding their own onscreen commentary track of sorts. After the initial surprise sets in, the more gimmicky, show-offish narrative tricks (Barry starts a sentence and Spencer finishes it) subside, leaving our four actual participants in the crime to add truth as they see it. Layton traps and strands the factual culprits in the center of the Panavision frame, no doubt a knock to those “documentarians” who do little more than film pictures of people talking.
Here is how it goes down: we begin with a quartet of 20-year-old desperados, members of Kentucky’s all-state high-school soccer team, all hailing from similarly comfortable upbringings. Why knock over a special collections library at Kentucky’s Transylvania University? Try $12 million dollars in rare books with only one old lady guarding them. That is more than enough to set Spencer’s (Barry Keoghan) cunning plan in motion. The burglary is his idea, but the more time that passes and the more people that are brought in on the deal, the less Spencer thinks of it.
Warren (Evan Peters) is the most nefarious of the bunch and the one member of the team that Spencer looks up to. The threat of losing a sports scholarship means nothing to Warren. He’s in it for the adventure. Did Warren really travel to Amsterdam to meet with a fence, or was it just an added schmeer of bullshit necessary to bulldoze Spencer into believing the practicability of the pilferage? It doesn’t much matter: whether or not Warren visited the Red Light District is only important inasmuch as the part of the fence is played by acting legend (and corporeal eidolon) Udo Kier. Keir is accompanied by a right-hand goon (Fedor Steer) who looks like he got the part after the casting agent saw him in a summer stock production of The Hills Have Eyes.
Eric (Jared Abrahamson) gets brought on board as the brains of the operation. He knows which movies to watch, which ones act as primers on how to commit a crime. Chas (Blake Jenner) is the driver and one of his assigned movies is Reservoir Dogs. (Muscle-bound homophobe Chas agrees to go along for the ride, but draws the line at being referred to as Mr. Pink.)
The heist itself is rife with bungling, anything but the smooth, one-take execution that played through their heads. And there is one character I’ve yet to mention, the “old lady” librarian, Miss Gooch (insert your own Auntie Mame joke here) whose job it is to play guard and mother hen to the priceless collection. Gooch (Ann Dowd) acts as the film’s linchpin of civility, making her scenes the hardest to watch. After all, tasing a plus-size woman looked so much easier in the movies.
Layton knows full well the the difference between dramatic reenactment and TV docudrama, and he shrewdly blows any similarities to the latter out of the water. I couldn’t help but be moved when at last the real Miss Gooch made her appearance. Gooch refers to her captors as “four kids who didn’t want to work for a transformative experience.” Her succinct summation rang in my ears long after the final credits rolled.