‘American Animals,’ the film shot in Charlotte last year is a riveting thriller

 By Dan Cava 

June 22, 2018

Still wondering about that film we wrote about last year, the one that was being shot on Central Avenue in the Plaza Midwood area of Charlotte? It’s finally here, and it was worth the wait.

In American Animals, the genre-bending heist movie opening in limited release this weekend, young college men attempt to trade one American enterprise for another. Distrustful that the college conveyor belt will produce all of the specialness it promises, they opt for another tried and true entrepreneurial option, crime.

Screen shot of Charlotte skyline from the film American Animals.

“This is not based on a true story,” the opening credits assure us, right before the statement changes to, “This is a true story.” The seemingly clear statements contradict just enough to set the tone for Animals tantalizingly unsteady treatment of truth. That the line between fact and memory remains blurry for the duration is one of Animals most beguiling pleasures.

American Animals is the first scripted feature from documentary director Bart Layton, whose previous credits include the exceptional crime doc The Imposter. The Imposter skillfully combined interviews and non-fiction footage with actor-driven reenactments, obscuring the border between truth and lies. Here in American Animals, Layton takes his tactics a step further, making it clear that the re-creations that make up the bulk of the movie are driven by the real-life participants’ varied recollections. The guys’ stories essentially coincide; and yet we catch small divergences along the way, a subtle suggestion from Layton that, yes, all of this happened, but…

L to R: Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard, Evan Peters as Warren Lipka, and Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk. Courtesy of The Orchard

The event in question is the 2004 robbery of extremely rare books from a university library in Kentucky. Spencer (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) and his new friend Warren (Evan Peters, Quicksilver in the recent X-men movies) feel the stuck in the stupor of suburban life and become convinced that the thrill and reward of a multimillion dollar theft will wake them up. The second half of the film deals primarily with the crime itself, in which the inexperience of the would-be bandits blooms into a series of harrowing mistakes and wrenching moral problems. The heist is grippingly presented (Anne Nitkin’s throbbing score and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s moody camerawork works wonders here), but it’s the atmosphere of spiritual dread set up by the movie’s first half that lingered with me the longest.

In American Animals, “why” becomes more important than “how.” Layton makes quick and convincing work of setting each young man’s personal crisis within the sterile promises of American privilege. The cast, comprised of semi-familiar faces from American Horror Story, Dunkirk, and Glee, perfectly shoulder the existential burden. One boy’s seemingly happy parents suddenly split, while another’s enact the rituals of family life without passion. A fraternity hazing ceremony is both jubilant and utterly humiliating. A college entrance interview asks Spencer about himself, but quickly brushes aside his life story. “Let me stop you right there,” the examiner says. “Tell us about yourself as an artist.”

Evan Peters as Warren Lipka. Courtesy of The Orchard

They are the products of Civilization, but Civilization doesn’t seem to be interested in their souls. The adult world that awaits them after college, with its grind of educational, relational, and vocational conformity, isn’t delivering on its promise of personal fulfillment, much less hold any of the defining experiences that the college entrance interview seemed to demand. Why not take the other option, the one they themselves have seen immortalized in the movies? Why not get a little predatory, a little uncivilized?

There’s something perceptively Fight Club-ish in the way American Animals depicts the conflicting demands of college masculinity. The title of the film refers to the rare books the guys are trying to boost — which include copies of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Audubon’s The Birds of America — but really it’s our young anti-heroes, prowling for meaning in the valley of the American dream.

Photo of production equipment on Central Ave. in February of 2017. Photo: Matt Gilligan

The film’s action is set in Kentucky, but it was largely shot in the Charlotte area. Astute viewers will easily recognize the Duke Energy Center’s neon presence in the city’s skyline. Davidson College stands in as Transylvania University, where the actual 2004 events took place, and a handful of other Charlotte landmarks pop up throughout the movie. (My favorite location cameo was South Charlotte’s Chinese restaurant Wan Fu, which doubles as a nonexistent Kentucky restaurant named…Wan Fu.) Ultimately, however, we get the sense that director was going for a kind of Typical City, USA vibe; and the choice to use Charlotte’s modest skyline and sprawling suburbs works beautifully.

American Animals is a small film, but the limited canvas allows the film to go deep where other similar movies might tend to go wide. Animals works as a riveting thriller, a fascinating cinematic experiment, and as a rueful rebuke to the modern American happiness machine.

Now playing at the Regal Manor Twin Movie Theatre.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5 

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