Empathy Is a Double-Edged Sword: American Animals (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Taipei Film Festival.

American Animals (2018) tells the story of four White college kids in Kentucky who, depressed by the fact that they aren’t as special as they were led to believe throughout their childhood, decide to make their lives special by doing something special: stealing rare books from the Transylvania University library that total over ten million dollars in worth. The first third introduces us to the protagonists and follows the conception and planning of the heist; the middle third details the execution; and the last third presents the fallout—obviously, they were caught. Equally obvious, Odie Henderson points out, is the fact that, lacking justifiable motivation, sociopolitical import, the satisfaction of a comprehensive plan as Soderbergh might’ve provided, or even a successful heist, the film boils down to a group of entitled young men who want a “transformative experience” but aren’t willing to earn it—to paraphrase librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd in the narrative, herself in an interview), who is tasered, bound, and gagged in the course of the heist. The documentary interviews (some of which feature actor stand-ins) and tricks-of-memory elements, where things in the re-creation change mid-scene when the narrator changes, are interesting but mostly gimmicky, and the acting, not too shabby in the first two thirds, degenerates into lots and lots of shouting in the bottom third of the film, so we’re left with one burning question: Why choose to tell this story?

Henderson is understandably upset that, of all the people who deserve to have their stories adapted into a film, the opportunity was given to these four douches: Warren Lipka (himself in interviews, Evan Peters in the narrative doing a non-neurotic Jesse Eisenberg), Spencer Reinhard (himself and a low-energy Barry Keoghan), Chas Allen (himself and Armie Hammer-lite Blake Jenner), and Eric Borsuk (himself and Jared Abrahamson). Henderson scoffs at the flimsy motivations the film attempts to supply for why they would do this, but quite apart from the fact that there wasn’t really a motive at all, the film is imperiously uninterested in motives, or even character. All we really know is that Spencer is unhappy, Warren is obsessively transgressive, Eric knows Warren from way back and so is probably similar, and Chas is . . . well, we’re not quite sure why the rich, handsome, and successful Chas joins the team. Maybe he’s sick of being Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes?

The film tries very hard to get into the protagonists’ heads, especially those of Spencer and Warren, and the way they argue over how to “neutralize” the librarian shows how they want the fun and excitement without having to pay the price; when they do pay it, it haunts them to the point where they engage in punishment-seeking behavior. Having studied the issue for a while, I’m of the opinion that the root of most evil in the world is binary thinking. Right or wrong, us or them—lacking a mediating term, there’s no way to transcend opposition, which quickly turns into antagonism, and winning at all costs invokes the harms of instrumental rationality in treating others as only means, never ends. The same process is at work in American Animals: We’re not special; we need to become special; the librarian is preventing that; ergo, we have to put her out of commission. With a few moment’s reflection, they might’ve realized that being special isn’t the same as being different, and that it would in fact be quite a feat if they were meaningfully different from every single one of the other six billion people in the world (as of 2004, the year of the story). But they don’t stop to reflect, and no matter how reluctant they are, their binary mindset keeps them off the straight and narrow. It could happen to anyone stuck in a similarly binary mentality.

But exploding binaries comes with its own risks. Roger Ebert famously called cinema “a machine that generates empathy,” and the above question—Why choose to tell this story?—can be rephrased as: Why should we empathize with these people? From the perspective of Gooch, who was attacked, and Henderson, whose viewpoint represents conventional wisdom, there is not one legitimate reason for their actions, so they don’t deserve to be celebrated with a film. But the film isn’t celebrating them—it’s warning us. It deploys flashy tricks and humorous scenes to show us how easy it is to think as they did, placing itself in the same quasi-documentary genre as Kate Plays Christine (2016) and The Disaster Artist (2017) (not being Tommy Wiseau but working for him). After all the hypotheticals and self-rationalizations of the planning stage, Warren’s attack on Gooch, aided by Eric, symbolizes the roaring return of the real in Gooch’s piteous howls and emptied bladder. The sheer violence of the scene, effectively heightened with shaky yet coherent camerawork by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and director Bart Layton, is so tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film as to make one’s jaw drop, which is precisely the point.

The film entices us to empathize with the leads so that it can hit us on the head with our own empathy. But that’s the thing about empathy: It literally doesn’t judge.

Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large along with the piece on Kate Plays Christine (2016).

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