American Animals

Film Reviews

Madhuri’s review of Bart Layton’s 2018 docudrama: “I won’t tell you what happens in the end – but the film is worth watching.”

American Animals posterAmerican Animals
2018, drama/crime
1 hour 56 minutes
Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abraham
Director: Bart Layton
Trailer on
Available on

When John J Audubon was young, he spent time in debtors’ prison. When he was released, he took off into the wilderness carrying a gun, paints, and paper; determined to paint all the birds in America.

The resulting paintings capture the wildness and grace of every sort of bird, with a mastery that carries in it a sense of worship that is both grounded and transcendent. We are treated, at one point in the film, to close-ups of many of these wondrous birds – flamingoes, eagles – and they are breathtaking.

In 2004, four students (three of them deeply reluctant), decided to steal a coffee-table-sized book of these paintings from a rare-books room at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky.

And whatever could go wrong, did.

This is a true story – a docudrama – and I found the tension in it so painful I often felt like leaving the theatre. To see young people being so stupid… But I’m glad I stayed – and I resonated with the lessons in it all next day.

First, there is the seemingly hard-wired necessity in each generation to find more and more extreme ways to insult, upset, and destroy the status quo. This so often results in a brutal ignoration of fine energies, a violence towards what is quiet and sensitive, cultured, mature, or deep. It is a kind of war; and perhaps evolution supports it – for its own cryptic reasons. I sat there, in my elderness, just grieving for the stupid blindness of what those kids were doing.

And I, too, of course, have been young… and done extremely stupid things.

But the lesson here that got to me just as much was this: these boys did this thing because they felt that their lives in Lexington, Kentucky were too small and safe and predictable. They wanted to experience something great. I have been much struck by a certain injunction in my Human Design: “If you feel like life has no meaning, don’t Do anything!” And I think of Osho telling me, “If you feel stuck, just be stuck! What is the problem in it?”

Being stuck in apparently stifling surroundings and not doing anything – forces the attention back inwards. Suddenly, meditation becomes relevant and necessary. And then, the whole sky is yours – and existence tends then to conspire to step towards you and rearrange any exteriors that it thinks needs rearranging. I have experienced this too.

But it isn’t taught in school.

My entire life has been spent in and out of this battleground. Doing… manipulating energy. Or, Non-Doing: watching energy. I’ve gotten into so much trouble over this – though thank God, in my search for meaning I never tried the sort of thing these boys did.

Then, three of the boys didn’t want to steal the book – and kept saying so – and yet they let themselves be badgered and persuaded. This too I know well, and Human Design cautions most strenuously: “Listen only to your own body/gut! If you go against it, the consequences can last your whole life!” These kids flew in the face of their own actual inherent sense and wisdom – and Lord, I have done the same. Someone else’s agenda can be a thing of insidious power, if you ignore your own truth – something it is so often tempting to do. Indeed it often seems necessary to go along with the badgerer. How to find the courage to resist?

The movie is well done. You have to sit there staring at pimpled frowsy unlovely youth for nearly two hours, and you’re spared nothing of their cluelessness. The music added to the angstish goings-on, most appropriately.

I won’t tell you what happens in the end – but the film is worth watching.

Review by Madhuri

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