American Animals (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Bart Layton tells the story of an actual crime planned and executed by four university students with such joie de vivre that I couldn’t help but feel electrified by the images, feelings, and psychology emanating from the screen. It is strange, incredible, and fascinating—that Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) actually managed to convince themselves that they could get away with stealing extremely rare and valuable books, some of which date back to the eighteenth century, in broad daylight… and then actually sell them without the authorities knowing about it.
The young men gambled their futures simply because they were bored with the present. And so there is undeniable power in putting the real people portrayed in the film in front of the camera to tell the viewers directly what they thought about at the time, how they felt while planning the heist, and learning about what happened to them following the inevitable prison time. There is delicious irony particularly in Spencer’s case, the artist who found himself uninspired or dispassionate toward the craft he had chosen while in university. In a way, a compelling argument can be made that it is almost poetic, or karmic, or destiny that the heist would fail just so he would find his calling.
Layton plays with the story’s form like an expert juggler, shuffling between reenactment and documentary with buttery ease. There is an engaging flow in his approach, always propulsive, even when the pacing slows down at times, but not once painting his subjects using sentimental brushes or colors. On the contrary, his approach touches upon darkly comic moments, but never cruel, especially when the writer-director highlights the thieves’ sheer stupidity. They talk big but their actions are desperate, messy. They learn first-hand that heists are not like the movies where robbers simply slip in and out, despite sudden left turns, after excellent planning. We are meant to feel tickled by watching the quartet squirm and struggle under the pressure of possibly getting caught.
Keoghan, Peters, Abrahamson, and Jenner do share chemistry but it is not the kind that is pleasant—which is the correct decision. They must not come across as friends but accomplices. Instead, each performer brings something different to the table. For instance, we are able to recognize with ease which one is the most intelligent, the most practical, the most uncertain, the one most willing to take risks just so the plan becomes reality. I found it interesting that although each character embodies a certain archetype, the writing, as with everything else, consistently leaves enough room for uncertainty. (At one point, I doubted whether the purported real figures were truly the actual people involved in the heist.) Thus, not one of them is ever boring or one-dimensional. Although they are criminals, we are reminded they are still people who care about the ramifications of their actions.
“American Animals” is a success for the most part because it dares to tell a truly bizarre story in a strange way—combining the dramatic genre with that of a documentary approach. Although some level of suspense is sacrificed due to the handful of interruptions between reenactment and recollection, the film, as a whole, offers a compelling experience nonetheless because it inspires those watching to create our own interpretation of the truth. Heist films usually just… are. This film, on the other hand, leaves enough room for curiosity.
Killing of a Sacred Deer, The (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
As expected by those familiar with writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, the former directing the picture, the film demands its viewers to squint through the fog of allegories and metaphors in order to ascertain what the material is possibly about. Or, perhaps more importantly, what it is saying about ourselves based on the deformed reflection of its characters, how they are treated, what ends up happening to them. For what it’s worth, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” may be frustrating to sit through at times, but I admired that it assumes the audiences are learned, cultured, and curious rather than ignorant, stupid, or incapable like numerous generic and unambitious works lean toward.
Those without or having only a limited knowledge of Greek mythology need not be dissuaded from taking a peek into the strange world offered here. Because despite the detached photography, cold interactions amongst characters, and schizoid manner of delivering lines of dialogue, there are enough pieces presented so that a casual viewer may get a feel of what the story is about. In my case, I thought it was about a man who has failed to take a moral responsibility in his career. And due to this failure, one he thought he got away with, it is demanded again that he take responsibility… but this time his home life becomes involved. Will he take responsibility now?
Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman play Steven and Anna, a cardiothoracic surgeon and ophthalmologist, respectively. It is interesting that while other works demand that the married couple evoke chemistry, it is the complete opposite here. They must not fit due to the bizarre language, both spoken and non-spoken, and the off-key rhythm of the material. It is almost as if we must feel as though the spouses are forced together in their palatial home filled with luxurious but empty decorations. Farrell and Kidman share no romantic chemistry and it is most appropriate. Notice when their characters are supposed to be at their most passionate. There are instances when when the fighting or having sex comes across as somewhat comedic, ludicrous. Strong emotions are expressed with a certain flatness.
There is a breakout performer in this strange but intriguing passion project and that is Barry Keoghan who plays Martin, the sixteen-year-old whose father had died on Steven’s operating table. Less perceptive performers might have played the character as overtly menacing. Keoghan decides to go on the opposite direction and downplays it. His seemingly innocuous physicality oozes an implied threat, a recurring pestilence. The rage of this character is found in those unforgiving eyes as he stares down the person that he believes to be at fault for him no longer having a father.
Drenched in idiosyncrasies, it goes without saying that “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is for select audiences only. In nearly every scene, there is an eccentric detail worth noticing. For instance, during Martin and Steven’s early interactions, it appears as though they are connecting because they are able to talk about the superficial details of their lives. But notice where the camera is placed. It is capturing the back of their heads. Or it is looking up at them from a lower angle, a technique often utilized in horror films before a jump scare. Those who choose to dive into this work should be open and prepared to take notice of details like these for an enriched experience. Do not bother otherwise.