If you have also taken in Morgan Neville’s cultural smash documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, you’ll have either remembered or learned that Fred Rogers put his ever-resonant educational children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on a brief hiatus in the mid-to-late ‘70s to focus on a new project called Old Friends… New Friends. Opposite to his daytime, kid-centric program, the new show was a primetime event in which Mr. Rogers would interview with adults he’d felt were making a difference in our connection to others or generally bettering our world. For one reason or another, however, he couldn’t connect with an adult audience like he could children.
Though it’s merely speculation, part of the reason for the show’s failing – at least, implicitly – might have been the difficulty getting an adult audience to truly internalize Rogers’s usual warming message of uniqueness expressed to children through Neighborhood. For others to consider us ‘special’ as grown persons, that qualifier often must come with hard work, dedication and achievement of something superficially perceived as ‘special’; that we are not inherently so. In Bart Layton’s American Animals, the real-life Warren Lipka and Evan Peters’s portrayal of him echo this sentiment, and even the real Spencer Reinhard acknowledges, using examples like Van Gogh, it is often perceived by aspiring artists that the only means of achieving greatness are through either extraordinary suffering or achievement.
Among most of the four individuals comprising the group of kids who nearly pulled off one of the most audacious heists in art history, and now having heard the words come from their mouths, it’s perhaps fair to assert the existential nightmare of being truly special, distinguishing oneself from the crowd, primarily influenced their choices. Watching and listening to their interviews for Layton’s film, you can hear their aspirations, reservations and ultimate regrets to the point where reenactments by established and up-and-coming actors seem superfluous. Then again, why include the conceit of fusing fact with drama, documentary with Hollywood heist thriller, if not for our amusement, as much as the conceit may feel like a modestly executed inside joke?
For clarity’s sake, you certainly don’t have to be overly familiar with documentary and heist movie tropes to understand the basic prevailing themes and ideas Layton intermittently espouses with pointed dialogue, scenes or visuals, but it’s safe to say American Animals more comfortably aligns itself with the audience members who most resemble its core four – suburban-raised, educated, dissatisfied, cinephile white dudes who at any point in their lives have thought they’ve seen and known it all – to ensure its themes and ideas ring even louder. To be even clearer, such isn’t a glaring flaw in and of itself or complete hindrance to viewer engagement, but it does contribute to a feeling of emotional coldness retroactively dominating the first 50 to 60 minutes of runtime.
Before expanding upon why that is, it’s best acknowledging the positives of Layton’s approach and setup that additionally contribute to this feeling, yet additionally prime the latter half for a palpably tense conclusion. His finished product, though especially the opening hour, is rich with intertwining subtext ranging from the typical to the thought-provoking; humanity’s inner primal nature, poetically releasing the beast by stealing a renowned book of animal paintings “caged” inside a case, youthful existential anguish, upward mobility coupled with a rewiring and bastardization of the American Dream, media, particularly movies, reshaping how we perceive the limitations of reality, etc.
The latter especially provides the film’s conceit more vigor and purpose than your everyday intertextual, style-mashing meta-romp. From the outset and in the film’s marketing (that it wasn’t based on a true story; it was the true story), the frequent criss-cross from a documentary to narrative fiction format and vice versa transparently attempts to blur the distinction between fact and fiction, thereby challenging the implicit trust we may give documentary interviewees while viewing such films – the real four guys often provide conflicting details, though mostly over minor distinctions.
Similarly, the narrative portions often depict the robbers using famous heist movies as inspirational blueprints for devising their own master plan and using movie references in their speech to one another to legitimize and possibly even mask the fallacy of their plan. One fictional sequence even fantasizes how a perfect robbery would go to the aesthetic tune of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, until a character interrupts their daydreaming by mentioning a noticeable deficiency in their plan. By this point, any attentive viewer, regardless of genre knowledge, will recognize Layton’s point that storytelling and mythmaking can be destructive frames of reference perverting how we envision reality, and with technical vitality and engaging performances supporting a semblance of narrative power, Layton forms a captivating thematic foundation for his story’s progression.
One problem, though: as noted previously, it’s a cold first hour to the point of numbness. With its focus so dead-set upon ideological subversion, thematic exploration, intertextuality and singular storytelling technique, American Animals’s provocative potency slowly loses its influence the more an emotional undercurrent by way of each protagonist’s personal psychology feels left out of the buildup. The pace grows wearier as each character’s moral constitution feels firmly affixed without sight of development, making this first half additionally feel five to 10 minutes too long as well as diminishing a more dynamic engagement that those viewers most similar to the characters could have had with a greater sense of tonal and personal nuance.
Just when it seems like the one-trick pony has done its routine to death, however, the film makes a swift transition after its robbery scene into a straighter narrative format, oddly injecting more life into its reenacted accounts than any method of its posturing intellectualism. Ideology and reference-making are thrown out the window for tense emotional development and subsequent thematic resolution that’s as heart-racing as it is paralyzing; compelling no matter the feeling it engenders. Just as the reenacted versions of our core four realize and face the consequences of their actions, as well as confront their deeper frailties, the interviewees’ collective reflections turn effectively pained, recognizing the hurt they’d unintentionally caused and who the true victim of their crime was.
It’s in the suspenseful, tragic back-and-forth between these interview segments and the dramatized heist and aftermath where American Animals is surprisingly at its most compelling, and as someone who firmly falls into the target audience these protagonists represent, I’m somewhat startled to think satisfying genre deconstruction as well as philosophical and thematic payoff weren’t the reasons for its intrepid victory. It’s a bold film, nonetheless, but it works because it eventually realizes a humbler approach could be just as effective, though perhaps that turn from complexities to bare necessities was always a part of the intentional structural framework. In a sense, it’s quite poetic, if maybe unintentionally so; Layton’s rampant cinephilia needing more restraint to find its composure, just like his then college-age subjects.
If that was the point all along, perhaps Layton and his movie are more special than we know.