It was 2004, and one of the most audacious heists ever performed on American soil took place at Transylvania University... or that was the idea. For students Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan), life simply was not measuring up to what they had hoped for, and they felt as if they were fulfilling the dreams of their parents and elders by attending college when they wanted a unique experience, something nobody else could lay claim to. After all, as Spencer observed, the great artists had some kind of upheaval that formed them as the geniuses they were, and fed into their art: he wanted to be a great artist himself, so needed the grand experience to make it happen...
Director Bart Layton had tried out the true story format in his previous film The Imposter, and that had been much admired, but when he tried the style again with American Animals, for some reason it did not take off with the general audience in the same way. It could have been a matter of its marketing, which posited the story it told as a crime that would have you gripped from start to finish, yet in actual fact it was not so much the actions, more the psychology of the criminals where his interest focused. What did the quartet of robbers say about a generation who were brought up being reassured they were special, only to discover they were no more blessed than anyone else?
Obviously, quite a few people can enjoy a remarkable experience in their existence, even if it's only the one, but this pursuit of thrill-seeking can be damaging if it's the experiences you crave, and with the downplaying of possessions as the most valuable things to enrich your life, the problems arose when, for a start, everyone else you knew were seeking after much the same thrills as you were, and furthermore, if you wanted to push yourself to the limit, those limits you found yourself at were the boundaries of good sense. There's no doubt these four young men were idiots - all interviewed here, older and wiser, one hoped - when they tried to pull off their robbery, the question this film was aching to ask was, why? Why be a complete idiot?
Was it the fault of the parents, who brought them up to feel as if they were far more important than they really were? But doesn't every good parent do that? Isn't it healthy to build up self-esteem in your child? So at what point does self-esteem turn to arrogance, to entitlement, to bullying, to victimisation to make sure you're at the top of what in your misperception of the world is the pecking order? As far as we can see, the four students were doing very well in their courses, but they simply looked at their fellow peers and merely saw disappointment; in early scenes, we witness what these young folks get up to and it's not exactly intellectually stimulating as you assume their professors and parents would have hoped, nope, they're having drinking games, setting fire to stuff, humiliating each other for kicks.
But that does not mean Spencer, Warren, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) were correct that they were destined for a place in the history books; well, they were, but mainly as a footnote in a collection of abject failures. Layton, while he opens this with a caption saying this is not based on a true story, it IS a true story, is well aware that their account was not something they could keep entirely straight, with Warren especially going off on a tangent about seeking a fence for the priceless books they wanted to steal in Amsterdam, which we take at face value until the film invites us to question him and his cohorts. You may have the impression they are being treated sympathetically, but the middle-aged woman they attacked (played by Ann Dowd in the reconstructions) pops up at the end to give a reading of their behaviour that is so sensible and stark that it brings you up short. American Animals was an indictment of a culture that has only grown in the years since the crime. A ruined life is not a game or a movie and should not be reduced to that alone. Music (with some well-chosen oldies) by Anne Nikitin.