American Animals (2018)


I have always loved heist films. I find it tough not to get wrapped up in them, a story which is an intricate puzzle, a crossroads of crime and justice and  an adrenaline filled real time (usually) injection as the theoretical heist becomes a real one. Each heist film, good or bad, is an act of chinese spinning plates, never fully comfortable and requiring constant focus and attention. If it’s not the outside forces, it’s the inside forces of the participants and their minds which may cause things to unravel. And usually, the unravelling seems almost inevitable, as time after time we watch heist movie after heist movie where ultimately the robbers meet their comeuppance, the long arm of the law putting them in handcuffs. In fact if cinematic history is anything to go by, a heist is something almost always doomed inevitably to failure.

That doesn’t stop people from trying though.

Bart Layton seems like a shrewd filmmaker. He seems like a man whose vision for the film is one of complexity, both technically and artistically. For American Animals is not a straightforward film. A fictional recreation of the events of the narrative intertwine and bleed through into documentary interviews with the subjects of the film. Four men, in their college years of 2004, planned and executed a heist of some priceless books from Transylvania University, Kentucky. Among them a copy of The Birds of America, a work by James Audubon which contained elaborate prints of America’s wildlife. The symbolism already rife in the story, Layton uses and blends film techniques together to not just show an unknowing audience what happened, but also why it happened from the source themselves. But to hold a story up like this under the magnifying glass, you can see the complexities and multiple stories vying for control underneath the surface.

Memories can change over time. Memories can be misremembered. They can be distorted, flipped, shifted or even confused with others. And that’s right before you get to any sort of conscious denials or lies. Through sometimes nauseatingly intense testimonials, we can see the real life players of the events do their best to remember why and how they did the things they did over 10+ years ago. We can see them do their best to explain, confront, justify and explore the things they did, how they came to solidify their past into a path which pushed them to pull off a heist. Layton and his collaborator, Ole Bratt Birkland, push an unflinching camera and cinematography into your world, one which sees many sides to these robbers. We explore their perspectives, their ambitions, their defenses. All the big and little traits which make up a personality really.

And alongside this, we see a filmic re-enactment of the events in question, as they are explained in real time to us. And to have both the real life people and actors share the same space on the screen (sometimes literally, as stories overlap and fight each other), creates a viewing where you have to acknowledge the film as a fake, after all it isn’t real documentary footage of the actual heist from 2004, but also a film which feels more real as the real life Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk explain the actions and behaviours and mental states of what you’ve just seen, and what you’re about to see happen. It’s a really fascinating and unconventional way to watch a film, half aware of its construction but also feeling more connected and involved because of it. It’s a bold and refreshing technical choice to see for sure.

The fictional half of the film has no slack either, it is arresting and gripping. The performances/performers are very open, very easy to hang onto. You watch them with the same amount of close inspection you apply to their real life counterparts, and it’s hard to convey the range on show here. It’s soundtrack is carefully sculpted from a broad spectrum, it’s use of movement in space is frenetic and at times genuinely nail-biting. The performances I mentioned earlier build to a compounded finish of intensity, as events spiral. Of course one tool Layton has on his side is the truth, as the real life oddities of their heist make the story more unexpected than any written and telegraphed script.

Look, a lot of what makes this film really good is just the river it flows down, the journey it takes you on. And while there’s so much to love about this film, it also offers only a coda of reckoning, as the silence of guilt and trauma hangs over them, as the damage they’ve done to themselves and the people in their lives is brought up. And it is hard for me to come to a conclusion on this heist, other than what it is. And I think the symbolism of the film collapses to the real life narrative as well, the final battle of the stories. And any technical flamboyancy evenutally has to quiet down to the plain, unpleasant truths. They tried to make and execute a successful heist, they failed and paid a heavy price for it. Their ambition got cut down. Nothing melodramatic about it, only the true weight of their consequences crashing down on their lives. And so it goes on.

And maybe someone else down the line will see this, and think it might be their turn. That maybe they can do it right.


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American Animals (2018)

Son of Saul


I’m finding it unfathomable to write about this film, in the same way the film’s subject matter deals with an unfathomably vast chasm of the human condition.

To start I guess, two words to describe the film. Visceral and muscular. Son of Saul is the directorial debut of László Nemes. It is also a film which is so intense, so utterly enveloping, that it simply makes you forget the film is itself a film, as you bear witness to a terrifying brutal reality seething into a nightmarish hell. It’s cinematic language is sparse and militant, it compounding the frame to only follow Saul himself, never to allow the audience to be separated from his perspective, never to give us the familiarity of watching the events unfolding from a God’s eye perspective.

Much has been made of this technique, chaining the audience to the perspective of Saul (Ex. here) and how astonishingly powerful its impact is, which I think reveals an unconscious prejudice any audience member expects when watching a movie.

  1. The film should not be limited to the regular human perspective (being only inside the spacetime + mind of one character)
  2. The film should be understood, both visually (in terms of clear focus and construction) and in terms of narrative (story which should be understood, characters with clear motivations).

By “chaining” the film to Saul himself, the film takes on a perspective rarely exploited by cinema, the perspective of one character throughout a larger story. Saul is privy to his own personal quest (of burying the boy he believes is his son) whilst also being a part in the group who plan to cause an uprising. This is no Shakespeare, where we move across space to see the other character’s motivations. We only infer what we can from Saul’s spatial-temporal interactions with the other people of the camp, we know they are looking for gold and valuables when he is instructed to “look for shinies.” We only know what package Saul plans to pick up, after it is revealed he lost it and it does not matter. The film is ruthless in its disregard for audience involvement in the story, which is a very good thing.

Here’s a quote from his interview with Little White Lies which helps sum up the attitude (found here)

 “I wanted to make a film about that because people tend to consider the concentration camp as either something remote and abstract or historical, not really taking place here and now. Or in a very over-aestheticised fashion. I wanted to make it harder for other people to make films in the camp because it’s so easy to go there but it should be very hard to go there. You have to have the responsibility as a filmmaker to go there and talk about it. I wanted to bring the present of it, the here and now, and not this remote point of view.”

Too often, a film doing its best to portray an accurate representation of a historical time can be diluted by the behind-the-scenes production attitudes and agendas. This is why up until this film, portrayals of the holocaust have been hampered by dramatic interpretation and expectation. A perfect example of this might be this scene from X-Men (2000):

This scene itself is created in a dramatic way, which (perhaps unconsciously) sidesteps the true nature of the reality of Auschwitz. The music swells, the violence is only implied by jostling guards, the mother howls in agony at the loss of her son. It might be seen as the “common sense + hindsight” approach to understanding a situation, and might work in this scene as follows:

Imaginary writer knows about the holocaust. Imaginary writer imagines character in concentration camp. Imaginary writer and future audience both know what lays in store for the people at the concentration camp, so the horror of the scene is amplified by dramatic irony (where we know what’s coming before the character(s) do.)

Of course, this seeps into the way the film is constructed, because we know what happened there, we expect it to play out in this fashion. But in reality, the Jews did not know what lay in wait for them at the camps. The Sonderkommando (Saul’s “unit”, who were Jews who helped shepherd the arrivals into the gas chambers, cleaned the floors, cleared the belongings etc.)  were there to guide the unsuspecting arrivals, on regular days.  This is the key difference, is that the projection of the Holocaust in X-Men takes place in an ominous, foreboding atmosphere. The rain, the mud, the gloom. One of the triumphs of the film is that it helps to replicate the reality; that the systematic and merciless extermination of the Jewish people took place on regular normal days. Not in the image of history we might recreate (one of despair, horror) but the one that probably came to pass (that of confusion, unease which then segued into dread and horror.)

This is quite obtuse, but really its portrayal of cinematic realism through art direction and cinematography is just so unlike what we’re used to in “regular cinema”, a heightened reality where we have access to multiple viewpoints and imagine things to correlate with our feelings about them, rather than how they really looked.

The final thing to be talked about is the humanity of it all. That earlier review had the tagline “Son of Saul will leave you too numb to weep.” It’s an interesting point to provoke, because we often associate tragedy with sadness, empathy, agony. But Son of Saul indulges in none of that, a blunt refusal to cede ground to the audience so that they may connect with the film, as if in some way they could relate to what’s going on, in some primordial human connection. If anything, it makes a case for just how unique the circumstances for the Sonderkommando were. The world they lived in was not one inhabited by regular humans (Saul’s last name, Auslander, means ‘alien’), it was a world of extreme inhumanity. Yet Saul’s quest is the glimmer, the spark of humanity that is never extinguished, not even under the most torturous of conditions.  Saul’s lack of expressive emotion seems alien to us, in the same way the horror’s of the concentration camps seem unimaginable as opposed to those who actually experienced them. It’s a world we can only stare into, never fully understand or translate.

If anything, the restraint expressed by both Géza Röhrig (and by extension his director, László Nemes) proves that old adage of less is more, as the only perceptible emotive act (Saul’s smile) speaks a thousand words, more than could ever be said by flashy dialogue or expressive acting.

Son of Saul is a film that could only have been made by someone who deeply cares about these events, and someone who’s commitment to portraying the story authentically (not necessarily realistically or metaphorically, but a mixture of the two) was not hindered by a filmmaker worrying about whether his audience would like his film or not. More please.


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Son of Saul