The Savage Generation: A Review of American Animals
American Animals (2018), written and directed by Bart Layton, is the tale of four young men convicted of felony rare book theft from Transylvania University in 2004. Shot in Charlotte, North Carolina, the film is set largely on campus and tells the story through both a fictionalized reworking of the crime and interviews with the actual thieves. Animals is possibly a coming of age story, albeit one of failure. At the same time, it’s sort of a teenage comedy. Animals asks what it means to be human today, and Layton deftly mixes the genres of fiction, reality television, and documentary to produce a film that astounds and delights.
For a few brief moments, the camera pans across a rural Southern landscape shot upside down. The symbolism is clear—America itself is upside down. The opening sequence then begins, in media res, with several men donning makeup and costumes before converging upon a van. Layton proceeds to take viewers back in time to the crime over the course of the film, and Spencer Reinhard is our way in. Spencer is an art student at Transylvania, struggling to find meaning and purpose in his life. He finds solace and excitement in his friend, Warren Lipka, who is on athletic scholarship but has yet to attend a practice. These two devise a scheme to make millions through the theft and sale of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species, and other rare books housed in the university’s permanent collection. To accomplish this, they enlist fellow students and friends Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen.
College has done little for them up to this point, and it’s hard not to see in the film a critique of the hamster wheel that is higher education today. Spencer yearns for something traumatic that will situate him alongside artistic giants like Van Gogh. Warren struggles with the idea that he has been told all his life that he is special, extraordinary, and that he can do anything he wants, yet the reality is banal, quotidian, ordinary. In fact, most of Warren’s choices result in negative consequences. We have been telling kids for generations that all their dreams can be achieved, if only they try hard enough. However, little thought is given as to what those dreams should be or whether the child is capable. America seems unique in this privileging of materialistic and individualistic goals over morality and community, not to mention practicality.
Once Spencer and Warren settle upon the idea of theft, they turn to cinema to educate themselves on how to steal. This is back in the antediluvian Blockbuster video days, so Layton offers as syllabus a full shot of a shelf of notable heist films, including Gambit (1966) and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). In the twenty-first century, to learn is to watch. Again, Layton pushes against the power of the silver screen as a way to learn as somehow larger than life, or more real. In particular, Layton is in dialogue with Tarantino and his Reservoir Dogs, which is to say, American Animals is a heist movie, caper picture, and crime drama as much as it is some docu-reality-critique. Like Dogs, Spencer and Warren “name” themselves as colors—Mr. Green, Blue, Red, and Pink—to great comedic effect. There is no knife-strutting “(Stuck in the Middle) With You” scene here, but the enactment of bodily violence to another human being is a turning point in the film. Only Warren can follow through with the violence, and he does so poorly. Another film that works along similar lines is Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (2012), a crime drama about scriptwriting and kidnapping pets. Thus Animals is a merging of genres, an admixture that accomplishes something amazing.
On several occasions the real people appear in the fictional film, and in these acts of doubling, Layton achieves uncanny moments that are powerfully visceral. Spencer in one instance stands on the sidewalk and watches the character Spencer drive by. Another surreal scene is when Warren slips into the passenger seat of a car driven by the actor playing Warren. The strangeness of seeing the real person within the same frame as an actor playing that person produces an odd sensation in the body. These doublings are also working at a bigger question: What is reality? What is fiction? What is memory? A driving force in this story is the earnest desire to live large, to do something that matters, to be exceptional. The danger of reality tv slipping over into real life has always been there. 1994’s Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and nominated for both Best Picture and Best Screenplay, explores the beginnings of such meddling in the 1950s, and Redford places the blame on the people. I think Layton does, too, but he’s far more sly about it.
So this is a film about a botched attempt at theft back in 2004. The perpetrators were caught, not really a surprise. All four men served seven years behind bars, and they’re out now. Reinhard has returned to art and his hometown, while Warren is still trying to finish out college. Their two co-conspirators, Eric and Chas, were lesser figures in the plot but accomplices nonetheless; they’re both out in LA now or trying to move on as writers. Warren may or may not have ever met buyers abroad in Amsterdam, and Layton has him close the picture declaring that we’ll just have to take him at his non-word. So what are we doing watching this film? The four young men are criminals. Indeed, it’s hard not to want them to live on the edge, if only for a moment, to do something exciting and real. As viewers it is hard to resist Layton’s heroics and not root the boys on—or even, as I think we’re asked to do in the end, to forgive them. The shame is that the books they steal always already offer the vicarious life of others as pleasure. Moreover, college is an amazing experience that is supposed to prepare students to grow, to become lifelong learners, to ensure their success in careers and in life. In the once-hallowed halls of universities, should one choose to engage, the apparatus for earth-shattering transformation, learning in depth, and moving through uncomfortability is there, if the student engages. Yet all too often, college zombifies these kids: Kids. Our kids. American kids. America. The truth is that as we bleed out the values of the nation to extract maximum profit for the few, the country is descending. As in the epigraph from Darwin, we are savages emerging from and reveling in the muck . . . American animals.
—Reviewed by Brooke Carlson, July 2018