1 Hr., 56 Mins.
American Animals / Leave No Trace
1 Hr., 49 Mins.
an effect of a simple desire to immerse oneself in the outdoors but an extension of Will’s agitation. To be in the city — the film is set in and around Portland, Oregon — aggravates his unrest. The mere sound of a helicopter is enough to instill in him a deep unease.
Tom and Will have adjusted. They're sufficiently clothed and supplied, and they have a close, touching bond. Usually, they only venture into Portland to buy groceries or to visit the V.A. hospital for medication, which Will largely ends up handing out to other veterans.
For a time, this cyclical existence has gone unquestioned by Tom. But midway through the film, her and Will’s routine is rocked when social services stumble on their set-up, declare that it is illegal to live on public land, and then question father and daughter after taking them into custody. Soon, they will be rehoused thanks to a farmer’s generosity. The replanting is alarming for Will in that it forces him to confront himself. But for Tom, it’s eye-opening. She ruminates, while remaining understanding of her father’s PTSD, on what things other teenagers might find ordinary that she has never experienced for herself.
Granik is reticent in her storytelling. We know nothing about Will and Tom’s life before the opening credits roll (have they always lived this way, or is it a recent phenomenon?) and are led to assume that the materfamilias of the family died, though that is mostly unexplored, too. Will barely speaks; his angst his ever-present and understandable, but is so uncharted that he, in certain moments, becomes more enigma than person.
What’s unusual, and perhaps a testament to Granik’s uncommonly pragmatic talents, is that the lack of character development or much by way of emotional elucidation allows for the movie to be intricate without being obvious in its messaging. It’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s also a meditation on post-war discomfort. It’s a slice of life, but it also feels like a simulacrum. A search for meaning enforces engagement, and in our quest to fill in the gaps does another layer of emotional attachment come to the fore. The restraint can sometimes be frustrating: to paraphrase Richard Brody, Leave No Trace perpetuates the trope of impoverished characters being diffident when that isn’t always the case. But the drama is sensitively wrought and ultimately moving. And McKenzie, who is 18, reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence in the aforementioned Winter’s Bone: endowed with a sort of emotional, actorial maturity that suggests a comingly gainful career.
American Animals: B
Leave No Trace: B+
f American Animals is a maelstrom, then Leave No Trace (2018), Debra Granik’s follow-up to 2010’s Winter’s Bone, is comparatively a stagnated pond. Quiet and spare, it tells the story of a father and a daughter who have retreated to a forest as their place of living. Daughter is a shrewd 13-year-old named Tom (Thomasin McKenzie); Dad is a PTSD-afflicted war veteran named Will (Ben Foster). Clear is that the woodsy living situation is not
story being told appear, in talking-head-interview style, to share what they’ve experienced; in the interim, a band of young actors animates what we’re hearing.
The movie is about a robbery gone wrong that took place at the Lexington, Kentucky-based Transylvania University Library in 2003. The principal players are friends Warren (Evan Peters) and Spencer (Barry Keoghan), who are students at the college. Warren is a shaggy-haired charmer with a rather obsessive personality; Spencer is an introvert who, though endued with ethical standards, is a follower.
Like most college students, Warren and Spencer are both listless and nervous about the future. Neither is an academic standout; Warren, here because of an athletic scholarship, is unmotivated to work hard. To emphasize their disquietude, a newcast at one point non-diegetically shares that the central Lexington is a boon for anyone looking to start a business career, which underscores their worries about someday finding success.
So, shortly after touring the previously mentioned library’s archival room, which features books you could sell on the black market for a sizable payday, Warren and Spencer come up with a plan that will provide them with both a thrill and an instantaneous financial boost. What if they were to wipe the place as if they were secondary characters in Ocean’s Eleven (1960)?
Eventually, Warren and Spencer enlist childhood friends Chas (Blake Jenner) and Erik (Jared Abrahamson) to assist them. Chas will be the getaway driver; Erik will help scheme. We know this plot is foredoomed, of course. But the forthcoming disaster is made almost humorous, anyway, when Warren declares that this team doesn’t need any blueprints, subversively concluding that the best way to prepare is by watching classic heist movies like The Killing (1956) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Adding to our malaise is the moment when it is decided that it is vital that the would-be robbers disguise themselves by caking on old-age makeup, which is hardly an attention repellant, and that everyone involved will go by code names ripping off Reservoir Dogs (1992). “Probably my least favorite Tarantino movie,” the real Erik deadpans for clarification.
It's easy to invest in this trainwreck. Enough time is spent with these people, whether the fictional renditions or the real ones, pre-botched heist to understand the root of the ennui, and what led these young men to commit themselves to the plot. Layton imbues the script with a bumbling but naturalistically straight-faced sort of comic energy, making the first two acts a winsome, tragicomic misadventure. The intermixing of documentary is a slick and fortunately never overbearing device; it’s a style that Layton employs confidently, and was first introduced, to much acclaim, via his debut, The Imposter (2012).
The last act stumbles, not just because the tragic underpinning feels hastily developed but also because Layton doesn’t quite start the conversation with guilt and accountability that I wish he had. There is a sadness to the fact that these young men who craved success lost their chances at attaining it because of a willingness to cut corners, and Layton avoids ill-advised sympathy. But even while this quartet did serve seven years in prison, we find out that they were, to a large extent, able to recover from their shared misdeed — an opportunity that undoubtedly came about as an extension of their privilege. But maybe to underline how scary that culturally ingrained reality is is part of the point.
his is not based on a true story. This is a true story." So says a title card early on in American Animals (2018). Such a claim seems bold, given the shifty reputation of the fact-based drama. Soon, though, we come to understand that the movie’s writer and director, Bart Layton, isn’t being bold for a laugh. The film, we will learn, is a healthily budgeted reenactment of sorts that goes farther than your standard biographical feature. The subjects at the heart of the true