American Animals is one of the most genuine movies I have seen in a while. It is a true story made around the most audacious heist in the history of US. If you are thinking it is just a heist movie, you are dead wrong because it is much more than that. It is not just a movie, it is an experience. An experience of a lifetime that gradually becomes detrimental by the time it reaches its climax. It changes lives in its wake.
Above all, American Animals doesn’t aggrandize robbery unlike other heist movies, rather gives you a proper ride into some rebel’s idea of living. Showcasing realistic repercussions of a heist when it goes wrong without overlooking the regret that constantly badgers one’s head. You are basically living it, each moment the way the real-life characters lived it. And it is very painful to go through their traumatic experience. But to understand why they did what they did isn’t that difficult to comprehend either when you start relating to what went inside their heads before the heist actually began to take shape.
Even the music build up that often goes with heist movies when they are about to perform a heist is absent here. There’s limited contrivance staring at your face making American Animals movie appear as tense as it should be. You can feel the chills, the real thrill when the robbery is about to happen. It makes you reflect on the enormous magnitude of what is about to go down.
The Analogy with Birds in American Animals
It goes without saying that the characters in the flick, the perpetrators are all American Animals as suggested by the movie posters. To understand its profound analogy the director Bart Layton starts off with the characters painting themselves up as Old men, based on Spencer Reinhard’s (Barry Keoghan) ruse of deceiving the world with their disguises. The reason Spencer puts in as:
Being old is the closest thing to being invisible.
When you are old, people simply lose interest in you. All your mojo just vanishes. What a beady-eyed fella to notice something so minuscule. We see a montage of images showing an idea of an upside down world, the way an artist sees it. His ideologies are different from the rest because the rest of them are happy wallowing in their meaningless lives. His is the exact opposite.
The paintings also depict the real American animals at times becoming predatory in their idea of freedom. They are preying on the weak and the less fortunate, in short complying with the cycle of life. An eagle prancing on a mouse or a duck preying on a butterfly is depictive of that. Something similar happens in American Animals too. We will come to that part soon.
We see owl eyes as a simile to Spencer Reinhard’s character who is this keenly observant kid who is an artist who loves to draw extraordinary sketches. He is also the most perceptive of all just like an owl in the dark.
The Definition of Success
A watching world that used to surround their lives begins to make their statements on the heist, an aftermath judgment that people often expel when a storm has passed. They are so distant to these characters that they have no clue whatsoever. They didn’t have an inkling about the ploy that was boiling in their child’s mind. Why are we like that? Why are we so lost in ourselves that people around us suffer?
It’s like we woke up in a nightmare.
One of the parent’s wished their child to be successful. American Animals intrudes a new meaning to this very concept through the mouth of Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) later on who drives this powerful nailing words through your head:
Which fucking future are you worried about? The one that’s fucking indistinguishable from everyone else’s? Where you fucking beaver away to get the shit you are told you need to have by some fucking asshole who’s gonna tell you what a great big success you are once you get it all?
You know he is right on almost immediately. Why do we waste away our lives to become someone’s idea of success? What is there at the end of it? What is it that we crave for in their diction?
The Amazing Screenplay
The real Spencer presents it in a much better way on being questioned this:
Who are you as an artist?
Growing up, I had a desire for some kind of life-altering experience. I started to read about other artists. They were always affected by some kind of tragedy in their life, and had to suffer a great deal. Van Gogh ended up killing himself. Monet went blind. I felt like they understood something more about life that I wasn’t getting to experience. Art has to be about more than just “My life is great, and I am really good at drawing.”
Once we cut to Spencer’s fraternity where he is on the receiving end being bullied by the seniors, we get to explore him more. A more perfect reply wouldn’t exist, as we get introduced to the second character of the American Animals movie, Warren Lipka whose stealing ways were insinuated up early.
Seriously man, fuck fraternities. The reason to be a part of that is so one day you can walk in the door of an office you never wanna go in to see a guy you never wanna meet, all on the hopes that he might give you a job you never wanna fucking do.
Life’s Big Plans
One of the greatest lines of the American Animals movie gets delivered when Spencer and Warren are discussing how their lives didn’t turn out to be the way they wanted it to. They had an idea of college that they were looking forward to, but they were disappointed by it when they came across it.
Spencer: Do you ever wonder, you ended up being born you here, and not someone else? Do you ever feel like you are waiting for something to happen, but you don’t know what it is? But, it’s that thing that could, make your life special.
Warren: Yeah. Like what?
Warren: “Like what?”
Birds of America
We see Spencer coming across this amazing art book by John James Audubon titled “Birds of America” that just sticks to his head. He estimates the cost of the book to be 12 million dollars and breaks it to Warren.
The genius of Bart Layton and the editor of American Animals can also be witnessed in the scene that follows. Both the real-life characters have a vague remembrance of them talking about the book. Warren remembers it to be in a party. Au contraire, Spencer remembers it to be in a car. The director merges both the perspectives so beautifully that it will blow your mind away. It’s just genius to savour both the ideas in one single frame.
The real-life plot begins to take shape when Warren becomes serious about the idea that was slipped to him. He googles a heist plan and tries to convince Spencer to take him on board.
Everyone in here thinks that they are gonna win the lottery, but no one buys a ticket.
Spencer is adamant about his conscience based on what he has seen.
It doesn’t work like that in real life. Bad guys, they don’t get to ride off into the sunset with the money.
The discussion ends with:
Aren’t you even curious in your little, little brain, to find out what would actually happen? To find out what would really happen in real life.
Then they watch all the heist movies to add up to their knowledge repository. Bart chooses to place Warren in one of the movies as if the instructions were directly directed towards him.
What would you do with the money? Aren’t artists supposed to starve?
The Plan on the Move
Things start to roll when Warren contacts someone dealing in stolen goods to book him a fence. Once again the contrasting stories are merged by the director to show both the angles. An email ID is given to him on which he sends a mail. In its reply, he is asked to visit the Netherlands in person. Spencer refuses but decides to pitch in half the money for the trip to happen.
Warren goes on to meet some black market dealers with a promise to produce the rare books with a hefty profit margin. Reluctant Spencer is one more time brought to the game plan by Warren.
A little subplot of American Animals manifests where we see Warren’s parents having a setback in their relationship. The director uses all these bits and pieces from Warren’s story to help others understand why it was the end of the world for Warren, why would he be so desperate to see, the only thing that made sense to him, through. The heist was suddenly supposed to give him the breakthrough he wished from life. We see him broken, shattered to pieces when he is sloshed in a pub picking fights deliberately.
To see the plan through in American Animals, the inclusion of Erik Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) becomes inevitable. With Warren, it is hard to reason with, as he places you in a position you can’t say no to. Especially when you are a loner like Erik who wishes to regain his friendship with Warren.
You are either in or out. This would be something dangerous, and very fucking exciting, that I need you to be a part of. This could change everything. This is your red pill or blue pill moment, my friend.
How can you say no to adventure? If your life is bleak that’s what you seek. Erik brings in reason to the team with his brain at the same time not saying no to any of it.
There’s one very interesting conversation between Warren and coach Bill Welton (Wayne Duvall) who has been noticing that Warren hasn’t been showing up to any of the games. Warren seems to have lost the reason why he used to be so jacked up for it.
Thing is I worked to get on that team since I was about five. And I have absolutely no idea why.
We should question why to everything. If we don’t get an answer to that question, it’s probably not worth the effort. Simple words to live by.
Welton talked about how Warren was a disappointment to his father. Whilst Warren says it out loud and clear for Bill to hear – what about his disappointment? He was disappointed by the college, the town and also him.
They have a small enactment to see how easy the plan seemed from the outside. It’s like they were in a movie easing in and out without the nerves to shatter them. It is almost like a musical and they are playing it out like a boss.
But then the need arises for a lookout guy waiting for them in a getaway car.
I was torn between the desire to keep the adventure going, and waiting for the insurmountable obstacle that would stop everything in its tracks and return things to normal.
Thus comes Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) into the story who was a rich guy who could afford to buy a getaway car.
I think the qualities that we thought Chas could bring was money.
It was like living a movie for these characters. As things begin to trundle further down towards excitement, things naturally go up a notch. They name each other from the famous Quentin Tarantino movie – Reservoir Dogs. Everyone is allocated a task. The real quandary is who will take care of the librarian. That being a dirty job nobody wished to come forward. Warren accepts that task himself reluctantly.
The Day of the Robbery
The day comes when they are supposed to perform the heist. The team finishes up their tasks and begin dressing up as old men. They have their heart in their mouth as they draw themselves closer to the library. Bart shows everything beautifully. It is like a nerve-wracking moment unspooling inside their little brains as they bask in the enormity of the task at hand.
There’s one moment where Spencer sees himself (here the real Spencer) picking up a newspaper outside a house. It is a frame that gets explained in the end. A future Spencer having a guilt trip, wishing he had stopped then and there. How he has played that scene over and over again in his head, him wanting to turn back from what was a surefire tumble. But the inevitability of the unknown, and the transformative experience of an artist that he aspired to have were already written.
Walking past the library door behaving as old men, being invisible, the four of them are counting their heartbeats when Warren freezes on seeing three more people with the librarian. The mission is aborted immediately as he freaks out. The rest of them abscond too. It is the best feeling as Spencer describes it, walking out without doing anything wrong. A relief that brings you back to the world of possibilities again.
It was like a new beginning.
Unfortunately for Spencer, the plan is still on as Warren makes a phone call to the library again under the pretext of a meeting.
Trying to Back Out
Spencer tries really hard and almost backs out from the heist. But it is hard to reason with a guy like Warren, who is very convincing by the way. He has all the right words and he knows how to use them.
You really wanna come all this way and not find out what happens next? I mean, tell me this hasn’t been the time of your fucking life. Man, I don’t want you waking up ten years from now wondering what could have happened, and who you could have been.
These are very impactful convincing words that are hard to fight. You know it is all true, but under a different pretext. How do you reason with it? How do you reason with the truth?
Spencer runs at night boiling with emotions and stops to find the same flamingo that he had seen in Audubon’s book. Wanting to be one of his favorite artists, that too without doing anything, and waiting for something extraordinary to happen seemed far-fetched. Spencer knew that it was a degrading plan. So he comes to a decision, makes up his mind.
You can go through life with this expectation that something fantastic is gonna happen, something life-altering that’s gonna make your life different and unique. I realized that I had to actually make something happen on my own.
To not do anything to change the course of life would be to die of boredom and normalcy. He wanted to be a part of the ripples, and his chance seemed to be only a day ahead.
With everyone back on the same road they started on, they give it a shot again. This time without any disguises. Spencer chooses to stay outside as a lookout while Erik is the guy who was supposed to accompany Warren to make the actual heist.
Appearing as Walter Beckman, Warren enters the special collections room where he deals with the librarian, Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) however, fails to neutralize her. He calls Erik up despite his reluctance to go in and attack the librarian. They try to tase her but the taser fails to work properly. Then they tie her up.
The scene that takes place there is a perfect reflection of the painting where two eagles are preying on a bird. Warren and Erik are freaking out as they try to shut the old lady down but they fail at it. It is heart-numbing chaos as they try to retrieve the books. Glasses are broken, the librarian is hustled and dragged, books are stolen as they head towards the back exit. But there’s no back exit. The four of them had failed to check out their extraction point and had gone along with an assumption.
In the commotion that follows, they are forced to drop the two books that they were really after as they make a run for the exit. Everyone witnesses the robbery as the lads manage to escape. They still get away with two books that were worth something.
The Guilt Trip
It’s one of those major fuck-ups that could easily land them jail and Chas goes full rogue on Warren and Spencer pointing a gun at them. It is one of Blake’s greatest performance in a split second that shouldn’t go unnoticed or repressed by the already remarkable performances produced by Evan and Barry. Tears ease out as his uncontrollable emotions drop out his face making him look really vulnerable for the first time in the entire American Animals movie.
To have this need to know what is on the other side of that line and realizing the only way to actually do that is to cross it, there’s never a point in your life after that where you haven’t already crossed that line.
Erik puts his own thoughts in the equation too when he keeps on hearing the scream of the librarian in his head.
I felt so confident this was gonna be what I needed.
It’s easy to see that Warren has broken too as he zones out remembering the way he had mistreated the old lady. The real Warren Lipka breaks down on camera as he tries to put reason behind his horrible act.
We just tried to get past it, but there’s no looking past it.
In a series of screw-ups, there’s yet another addition as Spencer remembers using the same email address to make the library appointment that they used to use a lot.
The Falling Apart
In a theatrical end of American Animals, we see each of the characters being swallowed by guilt. It is, after all, you who you fear the most. If you keep it clean, tidy and with a conscience, you are basically the very best version of yourself. You are unbreakable. These guys had just ended up having cracks in them which they weren’t blind to.
This reminds me to quote Detective Rust Cohle from True Detective:
People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.
Unfortunately, these teenagers were very much human and not criminals, to begin with. So they felt every blow, remembered every moment of the path of crime they walked on. It was painful for them to have walked on something so despicable that they hated themselves for it.
They all go down in their worst times as their misery ends with cops showing at their doors. They immediately know what’s in store for them. All of them get seven years prison time, costing them a life they hadn’t imagined they would miss out on.
You are taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you are special. And that, there are things you can point towards which will show that you are special, that shows that you are different when in all reality those things don’t matter and you are not special.
The Truth Behind Warren Lipka
Warren is one of the most interesting characters in the American Animals movie. He deliberately does crime so he could be punished. It is some sort of self-inflicting pain that he tries to make up for all the things that aren’t going well in his life. We see him asking for it in the very end too when he shoplifts intentionally and then throws the stolen item back at the security.
Is that all you fucking got?
It is his way of living, of choices he wishes to have to make his life interesting and exciting. The boredom is just killing and the stagnant sea of the crowd is sinking him.
Spencer reflects on a lot of things about Warren about how things were pulled over his eyes whenever he acted upon something. To an observer, Warren could have been this really insightful genius who used to think, unlike the mob. But to tack him to a wall based on the things he actually did, you can’t help but wonder who Warren really was.
Wasn’t he a prick, after all? A lying and cheating guy who duped his own friend and then pulled two more into the muck of his head. He was good with words so he made sure everybody was dipping their heads in his plan. The rest of the characters recall him as a bad person insinuating he was a liar too since they had no proof of him going to Amsterdam.
Would he then go to such limits taking high risks to inflict such level of pain? The question remains a blur.
The Final Word in American Animals
Every heist can be marked with one common reason – the thrill. The thrill that it gives, the adrenaline that it rushes in you, and the end result if all goes well basically stand as the driving factor of every heist. Why was it something more in here then? It was the sense of an adventure that the kids lacked. The living is so boring that we try to go after it even at a cost.
The final words are that of the librarian who was reduced to tears B J Gooch says:
I think they wanted things to come easy for them. They did not want to work for a transformative experience. They didn’t want to help other people to achieve a transformative experience. I find them all very selfish. And I see they all 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. And I think that, once you’ve crossed that line, I think it’s a dangerous line to cross. It makes me wonder if they really know why they did it.
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The Symbolism of Audubon’s book Birds of America
There’s something about the drawings that Spencer draws in his pastime in American Animals. He has an obsession with birds, and it just goes on to show why he wishes to be free like them. In the ending placards, we see his interest growing with the birds just like Audubon’s.
Audubon had a transformative experience when he had gone into the wilderness after he was jailed for failing to pay his debt. As a way of salvaging his life, he had decided to paint all the birds in North America. Spencer wishes to have a similar experience thus having his recluse celebrated with something that he really loves doing. He is an artist today painting birds just like Audubon.
Birds are all about freedom. And only a man who has seen a cage understands what true freedom is. He truly knows how to appreciate it. His interest grew not only because of Audubon but through the cage from where he used to notice sparrows up closely. Chains of regularity that bound him up young, finally broke him free after seven years of imprisonment. A man couldn’t think of an apt pursuit.
It is good to know that that transformative experience they sought as teenagers finally happened for all of them in their real lives. The best thing is that every one of them are doing something meaningful with their lives now. They were all artists in their thoughts, and now they are all bringing their talent to good use. Erik pursues writing, Chas is a fitness instructor also writing a book, Warren is studying filmmaking and Spencer is a painter now.
The Final Verdict of American Animals
If you take a back seat and try to see things for how terrible they were, you realize they weren’t at all. Nobody got hurt, to be honest. We see people getting killed in the name of robbery. These were just some bunch of ambitious kids who thought they could get away with something they show in the movies.
Then that puts forth the question of what is being shown in the name of movies. What does it teach us? When you know there’s a generation of kids that draws their inspiration from things that are shown on the screen, why are we still making stuff to fling them in that direction. Why are things not more realistic as American Animals movie was?
Children make their own calls after a certain period of time. And there’s a point that comes in our lives when we think we are right despite what others think. Who is to come forward and break that bubble? Despite what is already taught (which by the way we don’t pay attention to), why don’t we teach them how to work on growing a conscience, morality and the benefits of doing good. Why not make living an adventure so they don’t go seeking it in cursed places?
Well, that’s just a thought. I would like to end the analysis of American Animals movie here and recommend everybody to watch this brilliantly carved film.
Check out our other movie analyses as well.