Under Her Eye review: American Animals

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Read the shortlisted Under Her Eye reviews then vote for your favourite.

As part of Stylist’s Under Her Eye initiative, we’re on the hunt for three new female film critics. We asked aspiring reviewers to send in a 450-word review of their favourite film – and after an overwhelming response, we’ve whittled it down to a shortlist of 20. 

Read one woman’s review of American Animals below and click here to see the other entries and vote for your favourite.

Within American Animals beats a heart made of Icarus’s wings and a tale of the strange lengths that the innate confidence of being born a straight white man can carry you.

This is the entirely true story of four middle-class college students, from Kentucky, who set out to steal a rare $12million book from their college’s Library. The film focuses on two friends’ growing discontentment with the ordinariness of their lives. Spencer (Barry Keoghan, who was so creepily captivating in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is an artist, he has the skill but mistakenly feels he’s lacking the “necessary” suffering to push his work to greatness. 

If only Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette had been out in 2003 to correct him, but then we’d have a very different film. One evening Spencer accidentally plants the seeds of a heist in his friend Warren’s (the brilliant Evan Peters) head, by mentioning an extremely valuable book he’s just seen in the University’s Special Collections Library, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America

Given that Warren is the dictionary definition of a “loose cannon”, these seeds are immediately watered by the “meh” state they both find themselves in. To be special, to break the bonds of suburban mundanity is what they are seeking, and so they recruit two more friends to turn the idea into a reality. The strategist, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and the money, Chas (Blake Jenner). Like any cineliterate would-be felons, they take their cues from movies, studying Reservoir Dogs (a notoriously unsuccessful heist), and formulate a plan that involves neutralising the books only Guardian, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (the wonderful Ann Dowd, aka Aunt Lydia). The film exquisitely illustrates classic cinema tropes, with the boys imagining themselves sleekly pulling the job off, and juxtaposes these images with the sweaty, fumbling descent from fantasy to actuality when the line is crossed.

Writer and Director Bart Layton (The Imposter) has crafted a uniquely brilliant film by weaving together interviews with the real-life protagonists, and their glossy dramatic counterparts. It could be jarring to intermittently be reminded that this gripping heist was really lived by these people, but Layton handles it beautifully, sometimes shooting scenes from multiple perspectives, reminiscent of The Affair, to echo their different memories. And the scenes are gorgeously shot, from opening to closing credits, the colours echoing the film’s shifts in mood.

American Animals does not pass the Bechdel or DuVernay test, this is a very white male film, but then these white men have the time to conjure up elaborate ways to relieve their boredom, and they have the arrogance to believe that they could succeed.

The real Betty Jean wonders aloud “what possessed them to cross that line?” Well, BJ, the answer is white male privilege.

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