American Animals begins with a pulse-pounding montage: four college students carefully apply make-up while images of bird paintings flash across the screen. They are disguising themselves as old men; the paintings are from folios of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. They are planning to steal the folios, along with a first edition printing of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin Species and other rare texts from Transylvania University’s Special Collections. American Animals actually begins with a quote from Darwin’s book, and then claims that it is not based on a true story, but is a true story, promising a meta-fiction about the Transy Book Heist and the real people involved. After the montage, the film jumps back in time. It’s a clever opening, stylish and sharp. But while much of the film is entertaining and well-made, it ultimately fails to reveal anything compelling or insightful about its subjects.
Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen each appear in the film in interview segments, in addition to being played in dramatizations by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner, respectively. The interviews exist mostly to allow the real people to recount events, which are then played out on screen by the actors. Spencer and Warren don’t always remember things the same way, and Layton uses this as an opportunity for meta-jokes. One scene has a conversation play out in different locations, because Spencer and Warren can’t agree if it took place at a party or in a car, and a mysterious man in New York is played by two different actors in the same scene because they can’t agree on his description. These moments are clever and amusing, but they’re simply jokes that wink at the audience. The meta devices don’t add up to anything because Layton doesn’t do anything substantial with them; they’re more of a stylistic tic that all but vanishes in the second half of the film. They’re cute but inconsequential.
Let’s jump back to the beginning, to the quote that opens the film and lends it its title: “[W]e must suppose that American animals […] slowly migrated by successive generations from the outer world into the deeper and deeper recesses of the Kentucky caves…” (Chapter V of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species). In the full quote, Darwin is comparing American animals to European ones, arguing that blind insects in American and European caves should have more in common with each other, as cave-dwellers, than the other insects on their respective continents, but don’t. As such, Darwin can surmise that these cave-dwelling insects are in fact modifications of the other insects on their respective continents, hence evolution (or, at least, arguments from Creationism are wrong). Forgive the pedantic detour, but this highlights my problem with the film. Layton takes this quote out of context to imply something about the social or economic reality of the four thieves, how they felt railroaded or trapped in their suburban lives and were seeking a way out. Or so I’m guessing—the movie is about an art robbery, not evolutionary theory. The Darwin quote that opens the film, therefore, is inconsequential, like the other aforementioned details in the film. And this includes—most fittingly—the film’s title.
The film repeatedly suggests, through dialogue, that the boys felt trapped, that there was no future for them. They constantly rail against the lives they see ahead of them and how ordinary they feel; they are yearning for something more, something significant and life-changing. But if this is a prison, it isn’t economic. They had connections and privilege. They had scholarships and were enrolled in good schools, with promising academic careers. The prison must be social, or existential, but the film doesn’t fully explore this, either. Spencer argues, in John Falk’s Vanity Fair article, “Majoring in Crime,” that they were planning to fail. Warren agrees, contending that their mission was a success because jail will irreparably change the direction of their lives, which is all they ever wanted. But there is no discussion of this in the film. The closing sequence suggests how little their lives may have actually changed, but without Layton making these thematic connections himself, it feels like nothing more than a perfunctory coda, with the familiar device of on-screen text letting audiences know where each of the boys are now.
The film eventually builds to the big heist scene, and it’s genuinely tense and engaging. American Animals is a slick and entertaining film overall. But there is a moment in the middle of the heist that again illustrates the problem that kept scratching at the back of my mind. Warren, struggling to find the nerve to neutralize the librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (played wonderfully by Ann Dowd in the dramatizations), leans on the display case for the Audubon folios and stares at a painting of falcons killing a duck. It’s a visceral moment, with clear symbolic intent, but it also suggests a connection between the characters, the painting, and Audubon that is tenuous at best. The thematic content of the stolen art is incidental to the heist and to the story. The revelation that Spencer now paints birds is functionally a punchline. And as the ending credits roll over the same Audubon paintings that appeared in the opening montage, Layton is still just punching up a standard crime narrative with inconsequential details. American Animals isn’t about cataloging birds any more than it is evolutionary theory, and the film strains to make all of these connections coherent.
And on that note, I would like to declare a moratorium on movies opening with literary quotes or passages that sound “profound” but have nothing to do with the movie we’re about to watch. When I see a Nietzsche quote these days, for example, I just get up and leave. At no point did I want to walk out on American Animals, but it’s a superficially entertaining two hours, offering mere distraction rather than insight.