In 2001, during part of MTV’s annual spring break, VJ Carson Daly welcomed to the stage semi-rising pop star Willa Ford to perform her hit track “I Wanna Be Bad.” Adorned in a sleeveless Playboy shirt and accompanied by backup dancers doing hardcore moves, Willa sang about (I think) wanting to get with a bad boy. Then under-appreciated microphone fiend Royce Da 5’9″ popped up to voice the bad boy parts with sub-par bars. Seeing that show back then, what was most striking was how much effort was put into letting the world know how “bad” Willa was. Much like Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) of Bart Layton’s American Animals, she really wanted to be and to have us believe that she was truly bad.
In Layton’s movie, a narrative film (based on a true story and real crime) that weaves in real-life interviews of its actual criminal subjects, two friends hatch a plan to gank some priceless Audubon prints and rare books from the Transylvania University library. Spencer, the enduring frat boy figure, is trying to find the creative spark in his paintings. He embodies the frustration of the crossroads we come to at certain points in life when everything seems to become a mind-numbing gerbil wheel. Meanwhile, Evan Peters’ Lipka personifies the delusional confidence we carry in our youth. He doesn’t care about the sportsball scholarship and sees most people as easily fooled zombies who don’t know how important it is to subvert the dominant paradigm … or something like that. Whatever they are, they aren’t living, that’s for sure.
Within their lifelong bond they find balance and a shared frustration that gives them their brilliant idea in the first place. It also never hurts to have watched a few caper films. Before too long, the guys enlist the help of Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) in their flawed scheme that involves disguises that recall the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” music video. I say flawed because, like most of us, their criminal knowledge is based on multiple viewings of Reservoir Dogs and Ocean’s Eleven. They even adopt color names a la Tarantino’s film.
Also like a Tarantino film, our narrators’ stories don’t always align, calling into question the truth in their recollections. There are moments when the real subjects appear in scenes with the actors portraying them. In one scene, Evan Peters asks the real Lipka, “So this is how you remember it?” to which he replies, “Not exactly.” I know breaking the fourth wall is a thing so I’m guessing this is breaking a wall of some sort as well?
While some of the film’s narrative tricks got in the way, it was enjoyable overall. One favorite scene in particular is Warren’s Ocean’s Eleven-inspired fantasy sequence: They coolly walk in; in perfect choreography they open the doors, taze the librarian (the very underrated Ann Dowd), and make off with the loot. The scene perfectly illustrates how we’d most like to see ourselves (with our own personal theme music no less) in extreme moments.
Like the protagonists, we’re always sitting outside of a movie in couldawouldashoulda mode wondering, “Why didn’t they do this?” “Did they not think about forensics?” or proclaiming, “Well if I was gonna rob a bank, I would’ve plugged the guard first.”
The truth is, we’d likely forget to plot exit strategies and to wear those oh-so-necessary gloves. The film mirrors our film-based fantasy of casual violence — and the cold reality of barfing in fear of actual violence.
A few headlines have heralded American Animals as stranger than fiction. No. This movie seems more akin to what would really happen if the average group of college guys embarked on a heist. More exciting than that time a young guy switched price stickers at a local record store so he could buy Schoolly D’s second album Smoke Some Kill at the slightly lower price of $7.99? Yes. But worthy of the phrase “stranger than fiction”? Hell no. If anything, the very real human failings of this foursome’s attempt at temporarily relieving themselves of the privileged white boy blues is what makes American Animals so memorable.
Were the characters likable? Was the film trying to make them likable? I’m not sure we were supposed to even pity them, since the film does have a toe dipped in documentary waters. Further proof exists in one interview subject in particular: Betty Jean Gooch, the librarian who suffered the most from the heist. At one point she says, “I think they wanted things to come easy for them… I find them all very selfish and I still have trouble figuring out how a person crosses a line in their own mind to be willing to hurt another person to get what they want.”
While these words strike me as Layton’s perspective, I think he also wanted to comment on us as a culture.
We’d like to think we would be as bad as Royce Da 5’9.” But in the end we’re all just Willa Ford.
American Animals — Rated R. Starring Blake Jenner, Evan Peters, and Barry Keoghan. Directed by Bart Layton.
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