Joy Cheriel Brown analyzes the heist movie, American Animals, the use of an ensemble cast, and the characters’ feelings of irrelevance.
Note: This article may contain spoilers.
We live in a society where a person’s worth is judged by others in terms of likes, followers, and subscribers. The term “relevant” is often tossed around in reference to people without a second thought, “Oh. He or she is no longer relevant.” In the movie, American Animals, based on the true story of four young men who attempt a bold heist that they grossly underestimate in terms of feasibility, that is what the young men face—their feelings of irrelevance.
The biggest challenge in writing the screenplay for American Animals, written and directed by Bart Layton, is establishing audience sympathy for the main characters. The story is told from the point of view of all four men who participated in the heist, but two of them—Eric and Chas—come into the story halfway through the movie. When you’re telling an ensemble story, you still need to pick a character whose perspective is the main point of view. In this story, that would be Spencer.
Although all four of the principle characters have an arc, we experience the story primarily through Spencer. At the third act break, Spencer is the one who momentarily decides to pull out of the heist, and he’s the one to first mention the artwork that they plan to steal and its worth in the first place. Spencer is also initially the one who feels like something is missing in his life. He feels like his life lacks meaning and that he is irrelevant. Because of his dissatisfaction, he tells his friend, Warren, about the artwork that he has discovered on a tour of the library where these books of rare art are held, knowing that Warren would be willing to take it to the next step.
Whenever Spencer raises minor objections to the heist, Warren basically asks if Spencer wants to actually make a difference in his life or if he wants it to continue with the same doldrums, and the way to solve those doldrums is carrying out the heist.
Another ingenuous way that screenwriter/director, Bart Layton, creates sympathy for the characters is by interspersing the narrative film with documentary styled interviews with the actual men on whom the movie is based. After all these years, it seems that they’re still trying to figure exactly why they did it. They wanted to feel some sense of importance and their older selves seem incredulous that this was the way their younger selves tried to accomplish this. In the end, they only ruined their lives, disappointed their families, and hurt someone who they swore wouldn’t get hurt.
We see that often when a perpetrator commits a crime, the media showers that person with attention. It’s all anyone can talk about for days, weeks, months, or even years later. As screenwriters, we have a responsibility as to the kind of stories we circulate into the universe and into the consciousness of our fellow humans. In American Animals, it is apparent that these guys were obsessed with movies. They were constantly using plot points from the heist movies they had seen over their lifetimes to guide their heist.
However, theirs did not bring them the feeling of relevance that they hoped for. In fact, it did the exact opposite. It’s also interesting that these were four young White men who seemingly had the world at the tip of their fingers, which proves that it’s not about how the world sees you that determines whether you will be successful or not, it’s about how you feel and see yourself.