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Review: 'American Animal' Is Where Independent Cinema Goes To Die

by Gabe Toro
May 17, 2012 4:05 PM
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American Animal

Matt D’Elia, the writer, director and “star” of “American Animal,” plays Jimmy, a wiry twentysomething living off the considerable wealth of his rich father. He never leaves his apartment, despite repeatedly coughing up blood and showing noticeable signs of illness. Parading around his apartment in elaborate costumes, creating false identities for himself, and speaking in made-up languages, he considers each step he takes a sample of performance art, a “free show” for his “audiences.” He also hates jobs, disdains reading, and cares little for the comfort level of others around him, under the guise of “putting on the ritz.” The fact that he goes through the entirety of “American Animal” without being punched, murdered, or locked in a spaceship and shot into the sun is some sort of goddamned miracle.

How unfortunate that this impulsive manchild appears to be surrounded by enablers. The bulk of “American Animal” takes place within one day, where Jimmy and James (Brendan Fletcher) live in obscene wealth inside their sprawling apartment. We’re led to believe these two have been friends for a long time (James also appears to come from money), but James seems constantly blindsided by Jimmy’s reckless behavior and unending, meandering monologues. Despite sharing the same apartment, James just doesn’t seem to understand that Jimmy is a creature of obscene impulse, too intellectually lazy to be a criminal, too selfish to consider the needs of others a priority. Did they just meet yesterday?

American Animal

Over the course of one booze-filled, pot-smoked evening, the truth seeps out: James has gotten a job, a paid internship with an office -- everything that Jimmy hates. He suddenly feels betrayed, which is not unexpected -- the whole universe revolves around him, apparently. In one particularly juvenile monologue, he traces the entirety of human civilization as building towards the moment he gets to “put on the ritz” in an extravagant, unearned apartment, through a cloud of purple haze.

Jimmy’s worldview naturally benefits from the doormats that surround him: Poor James is achingly ineloquent, seemingly unable to tune into Jimmy’s wavelength. Even when Jimmy announces his one hundred percent disapproval of a job of any kind (survival of the fittest allows him to not work, he claims), James continues to judge him for not wanting to contribute to society. As if this is a man who thinks there still is a society, a man who believes lives can and should still be saved. James also thoughtfully claims to be interested in saving a seat at work for Jimmy, should he change his mind. Dubious.

James and Jimmy parry pointlessly through the day and night as two Angelas (Mircea Monroe, Angela Sarafyan) watch. Both are there to toke up, and while neither are interested in the polite, handsome, unassuming James, both fall victim to the “charms” of his solipsistic friend. This despite an otherworldly unattractive physical appearance -- often wearing only slim pink briefs, bearded Jimmy resembles excess merkin. Once he shaves it off, his string-bean physique is accentuated, his dark crew cut gives him a contrastingly ghoulish, gaunt countenance. Poor Sarafyan spends the entirety of the third act post-coital, partially undressed under a blanket, vomiting, being licked by a dog, and, even worse, having to suffer through another few endless Jimmy monologues.

American Animal

“American Animal” is a deeply unpleasant viewing experience. Despite the supposedly comic nature of D’Elia’s flailing performance (mix Tom Green with a wired anime version of John Hawkes), “American Animal” is shot with an austere, sterile lens, weirdly accentuating that D’Elia seems to have come across a great location for a movie, but then forgot to make it appear lived-in, particularly for a manchild slacker who acts on impulse. The digital photography is crisp but dark, emphasizing the ugliness of D’Elia and his bastard of a character. There’s not a single moment of comfort in “American Animal” -- intentional, sure, given that Jimmy is a confrontational live wire who puts viewers on edge.

But most of “American Animal” is similarly formless, absent of ideas, a sponsor of despair in lieu of hope. It’s bleak, apocalyptic filmmaking in the very worst sense: It doesn’t believe in anything, it doesn’t endorse anything, except for the abyss of nihilism under the guise of intellectual restlessness. Matt D’Elia has made a deadening, masturbatory, visually underwhelming film with absolutely no redeeming value. Whatever moments of dialogue that aren’t yelled to the rafters (usually chopped-up, out-of-context movie quotes), are mundane miscommunications, repeated to the point of replicating a reality that no viewer would recognize. If “American Animal” is proof of Matt D’Elia’s aptitude and understanding of the world, it showcases him as someone who looks at humanity and only sees the worst, who views us as a society of simpletons twiddling our thumbs until the apocalypse. It is a film without joy, without insight, without hope. If there is a kind God, he is ensuring once “American Animal” plays to empty theaters this coming weekend, each digital copy will be buried in a desert no map can locate. [F]

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  • ferg | October 3, 2012 4:12 PMReply

    ur such a hater lol american animal > you

  • John Galt | June 27, 2012 11:28 PMReply

    Although it may make some uncomfortable, this film is the epitome of artistic. Depending on what perspective you are viewing this film, it can be fantastic or horrible. I virtually agree with "No Excuse" in that you probably have to have some Philosophical background to appreciate this work of art, but if you can identify with Jimmy this film can be rather comforting.

  • Don Johnson | June 7, 2012 12:02 AMReply

    well with a review like that I HAVE TO WATCH IT!!! lol I always find somthing great in a movie a reviewer passionately hates...

  • NO EXCUSE | May 24, 2012 4:41 PMReply

    I LOVED this movie. If you don't get it, then you're not going to get it. And if you wake up everyday with a smile on your face...well, then you're not going to get it either. Granted, it might take a degree in philosophy to truly appreciate the subtleties, but a remarkably daring and innovative piece made for little money. Great utility, and a maniacal performance from D'Elia.

  • Humbleviewer | October 3, 2012 7:39 PM

    Obviosuosly this movie isn't for everybody. It doesn't have to have some deep meaningful message. From the beginning it is clear that jimmy is very sick, possibly terminal. When i watch the movie i see a man coping with his own mortality. This also explains why the friends allow him to act so absurdly. He spends the entire film acting ridiculous to keep his mind of his depression and sickness. That seems to have been completley lost on you. Instead of pitying himself, jimmy does what he sees as the only resonable action, to live his life as best he can for as long as he is able to. The film shows the mental gymnastics anyone might go thrrough when faced with death, it is a tradegy! I hope you will watch it again, and please keep an open mind.

  • Anne Thompson | May 18, 2012 7:42 AMReply

    I detested this movie at SXSW. It takes narcissism to a new level. But you buried the lead. If I was editing this, I'd have started the review with your line, "'American Animal' is a deeply unpleasant viewing experience."

  • Mrs.Toro | May 18, 2012 3:24 AMReply

    Shit! GABE HAS GIVE F!!!!

    that means, it's better than Ghost Rider 2 which he gave a B+, remember that? GABE=HACK

  • hank | May 18, 2012 12:15 AMReply

    let me guess.. shot on a Canon 5D.

  • jimmiescoffee | May 17, 2012 6:05 PMReply

    "the best art film ever"

  • The Playlist | May 17, 2012 7:15 PM


  • EXTRA, EXTRA | May 17, 2012 4:41 PMReply

    gabe toro is a sad, hate-spewing ignoramus who gives ground-breaking indie films terrible reviews, and takes personal pot shots at the performers and creatives he wishes he was. oh, wait...sorry, he was in a short film in 2007.

  • Momument | May 18, 2012 8:48 AM

    It's definitely Matt D'Elia. What a disgusting human being that guy is. If you ever cross paths in social circles, you'll realize that he's exactly like his characters, and just as worthy of the ass-kicking-of-a-lifetime.

  • and DEAR EXTRA CHAP WHO IS BAD AT GRAMMAR, | May 18, 2012 4:59 AM

    Please take up classes before you comment anything.

  • Gabe | May 18, 2012 4:58 AM

    Wow. Classy stuff. I guess you must be jealous.

  • Dear Extra, | May 18, 2012 3:23 AM

    Gabe is remove this comment. Or change the title of the comment, so that, he can think he is smart.

  • Christopher Bell | May 17, 2012 9:51 PM

    And did you actually search his name on IMDB to find that out? So much effort... get over it, don't you think?

  • Huffy | May 17, 2012 8:56 PM

    Have you actually seen the picture or are you just spewing bullshit based on Toro's past writing? Because if you have seen it don't just write two whiny sentences bashing the writer, actually explain why you think it's a great film.

  • bunty | May 17, 2012 4:44 PM

    Is that you, Matt D’Elia?

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