American Animals is billed as a true story, and I have no reason to doubt that claim. The problem for me is an ethical one. I don’t feel good about helping people profit from their illegal activities, because it feels I am encouaging them and others to repeat that behaviour. On a related note, I also don’t want to spend any time with people who commit crimes, get caught, and then sell their stories, because they give assholes a bad name.
The criminals we meet in American Animals are a little different than expected, because they were students when they committed their crimes. I’m not sure whether their status as privileged college kids makes them more sympathetic than the average criminal, or less. It is clear that these students were not in financial need, were not stealing to feed their families and were not trying to pay off a big gambling debt to a leg-breaking mob boss. They essentially do it for kicks and, actually, I’m now sure their circumstances make them much less sympathetic. No matter how charming they are, and the real people are very charming indeed (they all feature prominently in the film in a neat hybrid documentary choice), I kept hoping they would get what was coming to them.
What made this movie work anyway, and work well, was that the script doesn’t take sides. We are allowed to feel how we want about these guys, to make up our own minds, and interestingly, to decide which of them to believe when their stories told to writer-director Bart Layton conflict with each other (which is a running gag within the movie). I did not feel at any time that Layton cared whether I liked, hated, or was indifferent to the protagonists, and it helped immensely that this movie did not gloss over or minimize these criminals’ naivete and stupidity.
American Animals is a very stylish, humourous and original film that I recommend in spite of my general misgivings about the true crime genre. My only complaint is the film dragged a bit, as by the end I just wanted them to get caught already, but that may have arisen from my desire to see the characters punished rather than any flaw in the pacing.
The film is scheduled for release on June 1 so you will soon be able to check out (and harshly judge) these (American) assholes for yourself.