As Dick Tracy Would Say: “Non Compos Mentis”
(Latin for “not of sound mind”)
Review by Ken Burke
American Animals (Bart Layton)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In another one of those cinematic true stories enhanced through dramatization, back in 2003 some undergrad students in Lexington, KY came up with a scheme to rob the Transylvania University library’s Rare Books Room of some precious volumes by Audubon, Darwin, and others, even though they had no particular need to do so nor a fully-realized-plan on how to successfully carry this out. You could easily Google who they were, how the planned heist went off, what happened afterwards, but if you want to stay spoiler-free during your perusal of this review just follow the color-coded-instructions below to keep from revealing anything vital to the outcome even as I encourage you to seek out this marvelous presentation (either in its limited current theatrical existence or later in some form of video) which mixes wonderfully-tension-built-scenes of how the robbery’s intended to take place along with lots of commentary from the actual 4 guys involved in this intriguing narrative. What happened is publically available yet I’ll use my usual methods of keeping such significant info from you for now if that’s the way you prefer it, but somehow you should see this film, clearly one of the best of the year (even if the powers that be choose to ignore it when various awards nominations start appearing in a few months). I’ll make an effort to avoid spoilers in the commentary below, fully knowing you can easily look up the public record of what happened so there’s little for me to hide.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
|(These photos aren't very attractive, but the film was shot to enhance its documentary allusions.)|
What Happens: After some strange upside-down-imagery in the opening credits, we find ourselves in September 2003 where Spencer Reinhard’s (Barry Keoghan) an undergraduate art major at Transylvania University* (Lexington, KY) already convinced his life’s going nowhere, that he needs to do something of profound significance (more so than the inane fraternity initiation scene we briefly see) before all opportunity evaporates. (I must admit, as a similar art major at the U. of Texas in 1967 [no frat connection, though] as a sophomore I was already having qualms I’d be able to support myself with my paintings, but instead of considering a major crime I simply switched to Art Ed [one of the few times in my life I followed my mother’s advice] so I’d have teaching to fall back on; however, after my Practice Teaching semester at an Austin high school I knew I’d never be able to get along with other faculty in those places, so I shifted into graduate work in Radio-TV-Film, not really knowing what kind of career I might have. I did do some production work along the way but, ironically, ended up with a career in college teaching where I could remain stable as generations of students cycled through my classroom, most of them wondering what in the world they were going to do upon graduation.) After taking a tour of the campus library’s Rare Books Room, Spencer—with the help of long-time-friend/athletic-scholarship-holder (but in danger of losing it due to spotty participation) at the neighboring U. of Kentucky/generally-more-adventurous Warren Lipka (Evan Peters)—starts plotting how they could steal some of those priceless volumes (well, technically worth at least $12 million). Spencer felt artists (especially the most troubled ones, like Vincent van Gogh) need to have deep experiences to be able to find redemptive value in their art, so—contrary to his traditional, quiet upbringing—he starts working with Warren on how to pull this off (but at the marginal-level of reading an Internet site on “How to Plan the Perfect Robbery”).
* If you’re not familiar (as I was not, prior to seeing … Animals) with this private school affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) you might initially think some vampire-related-fiction’s been tossed into this fact-based-narrative, but, in fact, Transy U (as it’s nicknamed) was founded in 1780 as the oldest university in the state; the name (even in Dracula’s Romania) comes from the Latin “across the woods,” due to its location in what was a heavily-forested-region of western Virginia which served as the basis for most of modern Kentucky in 1792. The U. of Kentucky’s also in Lexington, so you do have to note at times during the film which campus a scene takes place on.
|The actual Warren Lipka on the left, with the actor portraying him, Even Peters, on the right.|
Although we get a lot of voiceover narration from Spencer throughout, giving the impression he’s the main character here, as events evolve Warren emerges as the more active plotter of this harebrained-heist, but he was already established as the one more willing to take risks, push the expectations of social conventions (including stealing food from a local grocery because so much of it’s being wasted anyway in restaurants). As the plans evolve our would-be-thieves decide they need more help so they recruit Warren’s friend, U.K. accounting student Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), due to his connections to a fake-I.D. hustler who explains they need a fence to sell their stolen goods, then provides a contact in NYC. Our intrepid-plotters drive east, meet their man (requiring $500 just to have the conversation), find out the actual fence is in Amsterdam, so Warren flies there for a clumsy meeting with Mr. Van Der Hoek (Udo Kier), where he learns they’d also need certificates of authenticity for their goods, which in this case would have to come from a reputable auction house given the age of the books (a couple of John James Audubon’s portfolios of The Birds of America , an original copy of Darwin’s On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection , and some others). With the plan now in motion, Chas Allen’s (Blake Jenner) recruited as their getaway driver (why him I’m not that clear; why—as someone from a moneyed-family—he’d be interested I’m not sure either, except, as with the others, just the pure adolescent thrill of the act), with the theft to take place in December 2004 during finals when the library’s not so crowded. Having set up an appointment via email (from a U.K. computer), Warren as supposedly-rich-but-reclusive-book-collector Walter Beckman intends to meet librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), knock her out using a stun gun, then make off with the books aided by his 3 accomplices.
However, other librarians are in the Rare Books Room at the appointed time so the mission’s aborted (it probably wouldn’t have worked too well that day anyway, because they came disguised as older men through Spencer’s theatrical-make-up rudimentary knowledge, the wigs especially unconvincing). Next day, they go back (no disguises), just Warren and Eric in the library (trying to be convincing as young Dallas businessmen), Chas ready to race away in his mother’s van, Spencer on outside lookout (after almost bailing out completely until Warren shames him back into action).
|(I suppose you could call this photo a spoiler, but, as noted above, the facts of this story are public record.)|
There’s also a brief statement from the real Betty Jean Gooch lamenting how such socially-stable students could even conceive of wasting their lives on such a criminal act. Rebellion certainly aided their motivation—especially Warren whose parents were divorcing—but maybe also a sense of smug superiority in being able to challenge such a poorly-guarded-location: no cameras in the room, just motion-detection-sensors, but given how long it took anyone to respond to the Audubon case being opened, the large book being lifted out of it, this was hardly a useful deterrent; still, given most of their planning came from watching fictional heist movies we can’t give these thieves much credit for plotting their intended crime. Whether Transy U has improved security I don’t know; I hope so or this film’s going to help someone else do a more successful heist of this valuable loot.
So What? Perception vs. reality is an ongoing, underlying, worthy-of-contemplation theme in this film: How the title might imply to someone who’d only known it had something to do with a crime (me, until about a week ago) that it’s a gruesome story which might veer into blood-drenched-Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) territory (... Animals' title actually comes from Darwin’s book); how these over-confident-thieves (until Chas begins to berate the others as being incompetent nincompoops, Warren and Eric frequently freak-out as the actual robbery’s finally in progress) assume understandings of their quest which they actually haven’t thought out very well—or at all (Warren’s travel to Holland with nothing to show to his would-be-fence; Warren and Spencer with no backup plan when the Christie’s executive they need to see is not available for them when they just drop in); how the recreated depictions on screen match the memories of the actual perps (with frequent cutaways throughout the film between actors and their actualities debating not only questions of memory between how an event's presented—e.g. the meeting with the fence’s contact in the NYC park—but also disputes among the actual guys as to what happened, when, why, etc. [Spencer’s even come to question whether Warren actually went to Holland because all he knows for sure is dropping him off, picking him up at the airport]), plus a further sense of observation when the real men the actors portray join them quickly in various scenes, giving you the implication the actuals are observing what’s being shown to keep it honest. You can get a sense of this disconnect between how (assumed) facts about an occurrence are then presented in a film by comparing a more-direct-journalistic-form in an account of the robbery from the Lexington Herald-Leader (run originally in 2005, reprinted here in May 2018) with this even-more-extensively-detailed-version from Vanity Fair, which also is completely-fact-based-article but gets into so many more specifics it takes on the sense of a novel or a full treatment for a film script.
The whole concept of “reality,” what to believe, who can be believed as a trustworthy narrator (for fiction or documentary) in our era where public figures of various sorts consistently deny the truth of their own actions (or previous statements) by claiming coverage of such is “fake news” (while their own use of so-called “alternative facts” is supposed to be more trustworthy, even when plausibly-objective-evidence denies the credibility of such “alternatives” despite how they may be touted as official dogma in a manner not unlike repressive-governmental-propaganda in 1984 [George Orwell, 1949]) implies a troubling, foundational concept in American Animals because we in the audience are now in a state of technological-sophistication where photos/videos can be manipulated to the point of visually “proving” just about anything as explained in this article from The Week about "deepfakes" (missing only an illustration of Nicholas Cage being re-imaged as Amy Adams, but you can see it here in a brief example of a “reshoot” of Man of Steel [Zack Snyder, 2013; review in our Jun 19, 2013 posting] if you can’t access a copy of their June 15, 2018 print issue [p. 11]), so even as eyewitness testimony in court can be challenged, even refuted as memories prove to be pliable, so do the situations in American Animals display not only arguable elements (among the principals, both acted-characters and represented-real-humans) but also depictions of seeming facts that can only be assumed 14 years later, despite the weight of “evidence” from those involved and those who reported it at the time that can now only be debated as to its full credibility, given how not even “body cam” footage of actions taken can’t be trusted to not be edited or manipulated in some “deepfake” manner (although you can certainly see the underlying Mr. Cage in various images he’s now been inserted in,* but the potential abuse of such visual manipulations is something the “debated memories” in American Animals only begins to address in its taut script).**
*This concept’s been played with for decades in contemporary visual media before we had access to such sophisticated computer software—capable of of producing these "deepfake" illusions which can challenge observed perceptions—from pure slapstick entertainment with the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933—most of this clip’s done in total silence so it's not a hardware glitch with your playback device) to aesthetic contemplation of “difference” in the creative process (as well as challenges to the supposed “unique creativity” of Abstract Expressionism paintings) as shown with Robert Rauschenberg’s 1957 Factum I and Factum II (which I had a chance to see together at a relatively-recent-exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, even though the actual paintings normally “live apart,” with the former in LA, the latter in NYC).
**Something somewhat akin to this calculated interruption of American Animals’ narrative occurred decades ago in Ingmar Bergman’s 1969 The Passion of Anna where the narrative flow of one of his typically-intense-stories is frequently interrupted for the main actors to be interviewed on camera (here's an example at 9:08 of this 12:41 clip) about the motivations and actions of their characters. However, in this case the audience is also aware (in a very Modernist sense of cinematic-self-consciousness) of the structured intrusions. In the dangerous case of “deepfakes,” we may become unconsciously fooled as what truth truly is (please note, the “deepfake” story occupies only about 7:30 of this 23:44 video, so don’t be “faked out” by its complete running time).
Bottom Line Final Comments: Continuing on with a slight riff on my “confounded actuality” comments in the review section just above, I’ll note another aspect of reality that can come into play for any individual viewer of any individual film, which is how something you see on screen reminds you of some previous screen experience, possibly altering at least some of the perception of what you’re currently watching as your mind adds additional tracks of contemplation to what’s supposed to be your focused stimuli even as you get some additional enhancement. In the case of American Animals, I noticed early on Barry Keoghan reminded me of the much-younger Richard Dreyfuss of another “American” movie, American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) which got me to wondering (which, I admit, leads to wandering from the film at hand) how his character of Curt Henderson would have turned out if he’d not only followed his original inclination of staying in Modesto rather than flying away to college in the northeast but also took seriously his “initiation” into the local Pharaohs troublemakers-gang (setting up a situation for a police car to be pulled completely off its rear axle) to start exploring a more serious life of crime like Spencer did in … Animals; conversely, a bit later Keoghan also started looking a bit (to me, no confirmation on this) like Miles Teller’s obsessive-drumming-student, Andrew Neiman, in Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014; review in our October 16, 2014 posting)—also an undergrad at a prestigious school but in such constant conflict with his hard-driving teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), they eventually come to blows so what if he also followed that ferocity into criminal activities that might have turned considerably more violent than tasing Ms. Gooch (although Warren did it, not Spenser).
But, my diversionary speculations aside, it was easy to stay enthralled with American Animals for many reasons: consistently-impactful-acting by all concerned, especially Lipka and Keoghan with occasional bursts of venom from Jenner; the disturbing revelations that such valuable Transylvania U. property would be so reasonably easy to steal if the thieves were more competent, making me wonder/shudder what else is out there (anywhere) that should be better guarded but isn’t; the constantly-fascinating-commentary from the real “Transy 4” (my term) providing marvelous context nonexistent in those usual filmic “based on actual events” reconstructions I’ve seen plenty of lately.
I’m not the only one impressed by American Animals, with the positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes totaling 87%, although the normally-more-reserved-snobs at Metacritic have pulled back from their recent supportive attitudes toward most of what I’ve reviewed lately with only a 66% average score for this film. Despite a month in release, though, domestic (U.S.-Canada) audiences haven’t had much of a chance to weigh in on … Animals because it’s just recently expanded from a mere 72 theaters to a still-tiny 339 so it’s total box-office-take is still just at the almost-unnoticeable-level of about $1.4 million, but I’m hoping word of mouth (along with late discoveries of reviews such as this one which are consciously-focused on this hidden gem instead of the recurring-roar of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom [J.A. Bayona]—already at about $730 million worldwide in just its debut weekend, but with me suffering from dinosaurs-on-the-warpath-fatigue after already seeing 4 of these genetic-manipulations-gone-bad-stories I haven’t found time to find it yet, maybe not at all, despite enjoying the screen presence of Chris Pratt, Dallas Bryce Howard, and Jeff Goldblum [I note James Cromwell and Geraldine Chaplin are in there too], along with my eternal-child’s-fascination with dinosaurs) will lead enough others to American Animals it’ll miraculously remain in award-voters-memories when considerations for trophies start becoming realities in a few months.
In the meantime, though, you might accept my usual strategy of ending the review with a Musical Metaphor, which in this case I felt has to be the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” (written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets who joined that group after Buddy Holly died), a hit single from 1965 on Fuller’s 1966 album of the same name at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEhsHrD2-Zo& frags=pl%2Cwn, a video with the band seemingly in jail while in the background a female inmate gyrates in her cell, similar to the caged dancers on the TV top-40-music-shows ABC’s “Shindig” and NBC’s “Hullaballoo” of the time (as well as a feature at dance clubs well in to the 1970s), although I know this song’s more appropriately Metaphorical in its chorus than in the verses (there’s no “best girl” in this film with some other critics noting these guys might have backed off their robbery plans if a female voice of reason had intercepted them; no one’s robbed with “a six-gun,” just a stun gun), but it makes a lively finale for my review. Actually, if you want lively, here’s a 1979 version by The Clash, considerably more energetic, with some added footage to enhance the song.
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Here’s more information about American Animals:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZLDG_AyGk4&frags=pl%2Cwn (26:29 interview [begins by showing the trailer just above] with actors Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, their real-life originals Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk, and director Bart Layton)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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