****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. A good but not great film, that insightfully diagnoses the American condition.
American Animals, written and directed by Barry Layton, is based on the true story of a heist of rare books from the Transylvania University library in 2004. The film stars Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan.
American Animals is a good, but not great film, that is fascinating because it accurately diagnoses and portrays what ails men in late stage American empire, namely the lack of meaning and purpose in their lives.
Director Barry Layton takes this bizarre, real life story, and twists and turns it into a pseudo-Rashomon-eqsue documentary fiction piece of cultural criticism that resonates more thematically than in execution.
Layton's sprinkles interviews with the actual people at the center of the real-life heist at Transylvania University in 2004 though out the film, which is a daring and interesting approach that works well. Cutting from the real Warren Lipka to Evan Peters playing Warren Lipka, makes for captivating cinema, and the truth is the real people often times seem more compelling than their fictional counterparts.
Layton deftly weaves in all sorts of cultural commentary throughout the film, including a beautifully executed swipe at the Ocean's Eleven movies, which was so spot on in every single way I could barely contain myself. The fact that the female version of Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Eight, was playing in the theatre right next door, only made Layton's jab all the more effective.
The cast all do solid work, with Evan Peters and the always intriguing Barry Keoghan carrying most of the weight. Peters and Keoghan are, just like the real Warren Lipjka and Spencer Reinhard, an interesting pair as they are so mismatched one wonders why they would ever come together in the first place.
Keoghan's penchant for playing odd ducks (he was marvelous in last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is on full display in American Animals. Keoghan's Reinhard is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, surrounded by desperate American angst.
Peters' Lipka is a combustible concoction of resentment, arrogance and misplaced rage, who, unlike Reinhard, seems to have "Born to Lose" tattooed on his chest. Lipka might be the brains of the operation, and he also might be the balls of the operation, but the problem is he is severely deficient in both brains and balls.
Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson play Chas Allen and Erick Borsuk respectively, and they do terrific work as well. While their characters are under written compared to Peters and Keoghan, both actors make the most of what is given them and add to the oddball mix of would-be heisters that seems so ill-conceived.
American Animals is less a heist movie, and more a commentary on the culture that loves and needs heist movies. For instance, both Reinhard and Lipka scour Hollywood heist movies in order to learn how to pull one off. While the heist is the main attraction, the more salient point on display in American Animals is the total lack of meaning in the lives of American men that lead them to be attracted to "heists" in the first place.
Layton masterfully cuts to the bone of America and reveals the rot at its core. America is desperately and irreversibly in decline, and the American male is dying on the vine. One of the books the American Animals gang is trying to steal is written by Charles Darwin, which is ironic since these young men are symbolic of the fact that the American Male has evolved beyond his usefulness and is in fact, in a state of rapid devolution. As Layton exquisitely shows through the use of another of the books targeted by the heist, this one a collection of the works of John James Audubon, our current decadent age of the Flamingo has deluded American men away from their archetypal Hawk, resulting in a loss of connection with their true masculine nature.
In the end, as American men are taught to be Flamingos, they find that the Flamingo archetype does not resonate in their primal psyche, and so they try and reorient to their genetic, animalistic nature by overcompensating, which takes the form of violent or sexually aggressive behavior, in order to prove they indeed are not Flamingos, but really birds of prey…like the American Eagle. But the bad news is, that bird don't hunt anymore. The American Eagle has landed, had his wings and balls clipped and now clucks like a chicken and preens like a peacock.
The American Animals on display in the movie American Animals are representative of the current state of the American Male and the desperate yearning for the a return of the endangered and nearly extinct Real American Man®™. The current American Male has been deconstructed, domesticated and emasculated. This is why gun violence (with gun as totem phallic symbol) is so prevalent, as are the use of viagra and pornography.
Masculine Nature has been overcome by too much Feminine Nurture, and when that balance goes out of whack the end the result is what is on display in American Animals, a bitter malaise and ennui leading to a misguided angry ambition, which will only further frustrate the American Male because he is now ill-equipped to express his rage in healthy and cathartic ways.
For example, the real life events of American Animals take place in 2004, as the Iraq War raged half a world away. America lost that war because we are no longer the type of country that wins wars (we haven't won a war in over 70 years)…only the kind that talks loud enough to get ourselves into them.
Lipka and Reinhard's motivation for the heist was the same thing that motivated men from Achilles to Chris Kyle over the centuries, they were ultimately searching for glory. Unlike Achilles and his ilk, Lipka and Reinhard also wanted a short cut to gaining wealth, which has become the new God of our age…and people think it will give meaning and purpose to their lives just like the old Judeo-Christian God gave meaning and purpose to people for two centuries.
Enlisting and fighting in Iraq would maybe get Lipka and Rienhard some barstool glory, or a "thank you for your service" from some narcissistic poseur, but it could also get them killed or maimed for absolutely nothing, and it sure as hell wouldn't get them rich. So Lipka and Reinhard took another route…which is a much more typically modern American route than seeking glory on the battlefield, they took the route of Wall Street and Washington, they became thieves. The fraud/conman/thief is the archetype that resonates in our collective psyche right now, which is why we have the president, the politics, the economy, the media and the country we do.
American Animals is fascinating for the themes it conjures and investigates, and although, like its characters, its artistic eyes are a bit bigger than its stomach, I found it to be a worthwhile cinematic endeavor. I thoroughly enjoyed American Animals and thought it was a very smart and insightful film, although never rising to the level of being a great one.
If you want to see an accurate diagnosis of what drives late stage empire America, with its rampant opioid addiction, suicides, militarism, fraudulent economy, crumbling institutions, and spiritual decrepitude and dis-ease…then check out American Animals. If you prefer to be like a frog in boiling water and be oblivious to the growing heat around you…you might enjoy Hearts Beat Loud a whole lot more.