Of the films viewed in the current Sydney Film Festival, American Animals was the one to have a movie-of-the-moment energy. It is at once a heist film with the usual tension, action and ingenuity elements mixed in with tries for new film form and comment.
Director Bart Layton (documentary The Impostor) had considered doing a factual film with staged material (think America’s Most Wanted and its heirs and successors) but shifted the production into a dramatisation in which the actual former college boy thieves appear commenting the movie's version of their seven figure rare book robbery fourteen years earlier. The piece has been compared to the Clint Eastwood The 15:17 to Paris and Michael Haneke, to which you could addFive Against the House.American Animals has, however, an idiom of its own.
Layton has gotten together rising star leads. We get Transylvania U art student Barry Keoghan (Killing of a Sacred Deer) recruiting fellow undergraduate Evan Peters (Marvel’s Quicksilver), Jared Abrahamson (Sweet Virginia) and Blake Jenner (Edge of Seventeen) joining his scheme to knock over the University Library where twelve million dollars worth of books are protected by “one old lady” with keys to a glass case.
Their preparation is farcical, including running every heist movie they can find and skilling in theatrical make up, which we see being applied in extreme close up under the main titles, alternating with shots switching car number plates. They plot events in the best Asphalt Jungle manner with plans on the wall and a tipped over toy soldier to represent the librarian. There’s even an imaginary version of the proposed crime where events go with balletic smoothness.
Layton planned on cutting shots of his actors into the briefing in Ocean’s Elevenbut Stephen Soderbergh wouldn’t go along, so they excerpted The Killinginstead. Soderbergh has since said he was sorry he turned them down but now Layton mutters that The Killingwas a whole lot better movie anyway - correctly.
The dodgiest element of their narrative however is “the fence” met by emailing an address obtained from a shady contact (“Lose your fake ID already?”) for a five hundred dollar backhander which may or may not have sent Peters off to Amsterdam to encounter the film’s one familiar face, Udo Kier doing international hard man.
Of course the job unravels.
More important than the narrative development is the handling, including a scene run backwards to a different opening, melting sidewise juxtapositions and the comments from the now decade and a half older conspirators who occasionally contradict one another. Peters is shown doubling back from the airport entrance and taking a cab rather than fly off to Europe, leaving open the question of the Amsterdam connection altogether. Layton both offers and withholds sympathy for his subjects but adds a depiction of the victims of their action which we don’t usually see.
The film is curiously free of comment on the notion of any twelve-million dollar volume of bird drawings and its place in American culture though the makers are clearly aware of it, using Audibon's flamingo (a thousand dollars to repro each page) as a visual motif and doing a striking final credit sequence with the art work as title back ground. Real art student robber Spencer Reinhard contributed his character’s paintings for the film.
This gets us into an even more curious element as we see the leads are motivated by a jaded dissatisfaction with the comfortable suburban lives their parents have laid out for them “to find out what would really happen in real life.” Failed jock Jenner turns on Keoghan who claims to be drawn by the big pay day and says “Artists are supposed to starve.”
CompareThe Kindergarten Teacher also on show.
Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been able to do sexy without pretty and when she mixes menacing in with that, she’s a force of nature.
The vehicle is a close adaptation of an Israeli/Argentinian film that we are unlikely to ever get to see. Maggie has what passes in the U.S. mid-day movie for the ideal life. She is a kindergarten teacher in a nice school. No blackboard jungles here (if the tinies say a bad word they get a time out).She’s raised two teenagers in a comfortable house in a leafy suburb. Husband of twenty years Michael Chernus is a bit heavy but he’s still interested in getting it on. She’s even enrolled in Gael Garcia Bernal’s poetry evening class - what’s hedoing in this one?
|Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, The Kindergarten Teacher|
However, things are sure to go pear-shaped by the logic that governs the independent cinema’s depiction of the suburbs. Sure enough, the son is going out for marine training (“kill people in the desert for oil!”) and the daughter won’t let mum stop her smoking a joint now that it’s been legalised.
At this point Parker Sevak, one of her little charges, starts delivering spontaneous poetry. It’s a whole lot better than Maggie’s own which is all about water sprites. She has the kid’s minder copy down any verses he might sprout when there’s no one about and gives him a cell phone to call them through to her.
The boy’s proof reader uncle understandably finds Maggie a bit too touchy feely when she calls at his job and when she finally meets the bar tending dad, he’s not interested in the kid getting into anything artsy like that of his own brother, who now corrects people’s spelling for a living.
Maggie crosses all manner of lines - passing the kid’s work off as her own and hi-jacking him from football practice to a city poetry reading where the plagiarism thing unravels. The boy is a hit but Gael Garcia isn’t interested in doing Maggie on his office carpet anymore. His dad shifts the boy to another kindergarten so Maggie strikes and the boy proves smarter than she in a comic/grim ending.
Doing her first feature, writer-director Sara Colangelo gets value out of a modest indie budget. She used off the board methods like introducing Maggie to the kids in the picture as their real teacher which gave her problems when they got so involved in her activities they didn’t want to take nap times. Colangelo manages the film’s balancing act with some assurance showing that the kindergarten teacher is the one with the vision and understanding that the dad lacks. But he’s the one that’s grounded and she’s the wacko.
The audience in the State giggled through the first hour, possibly because this was all a bit too close to home, and then went quiet when the film got assertive - or they got tired.
The comparison with American Animalsis more interesting than most. It's striking to find the leads all driven by a fear of being average. Is this an accident? Is everyone suddenly reading "Crime and Punishment" or are these films telling us something about Trump America that we can't yet see?