Reminiscent of the recent Mexican film Museo, by Alonso Ruizpalacios, American Animals is a heist movie starring youngsters who, on paper, would have no obvious reason to carry out a robbery.
With the support of their families, without economic problems, enrolled in the university and theoretically with a promising future, Spencer (Barry Keoghan, who previously stood out in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Warren (Evan Peters) really want their lives to take a different direction, towards the extraordinary and meaningful. Suddenly, stealing some of the valuable books from a collection at the University of Transylvania, including John James Audubon's collection of bird paintings, The Birds of America, will become the friends' obsession in order to fill that existential vacuum that’s invisible to their loved ones and teachers.
When at the beginning of American Animals the director Bart Layton warns us that his film isn’t based on a true story, but is a true story, it's clear that we are about to witness an effort that seeks to play with the conventions of this type of "inspired by real events” movies, something that could also be said of Museo. The peculiarity of American Animals is that at times it acts like a documentary, filling the screen with the distinctive “talking heads" of the real protagonists (certainly Spencer and Warren among them) of the events that took place in 2003 and 2004 in Kentucky, United States. Additionally, Layton has fun recreating the testimonies cinematically, since, for example, Spencer remembers events in a different way than Warren does.
In that playful tone, American Animals reveals itself as a highly stylized and enjoyable heist movie, which, by following the classical structure of the subgenre (the preparation, execution and repercussion of the theft) always reveals the total inexperience regarding crime of the young college students – Spencer and Warren were eventually joined by Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner). To the rhythm of Elvis Presley, they imagine themselves as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and company in Ocean’s Eleven, or pretend to be Quentin Tarantino's colorful Reservoir Dogs (in a hilarious reference we meet the new Mr. Pink); but they will live in their own flesh the heist movie where nothing goes according to plan and there’s no going back, because reality, naturally, is closer to chaos, stress, fear and repentance than to Danny Ocean's perfect robbery.
Widows, on the other hand, is another heist film and the first effort by British filmmaker Steve McQueen since winning for 12 Years a Slave the Best Picture Academy Award in 2013. Now, McQueen takes us to Chicago, during the year in which Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States.
It’s in this context, in the relevant topics addressed by McQueen (i.e. police brutality), where the most interesting side of Widows lies, while gradually developing a typical movie of the subgenre also starring a group of inexperienced characters who are preparing to commit a great robbery. In this case, it's the widows (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez) of three of the criminals (Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) who perished in another heist.
McQueen's film has different aspects, on the one hand functioning as a drama on the behind-the-scenes of an election marked by the racial conflict and the dirt inherent in politics. Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a candidate who’s the son of a racist man (played by Robert Duvall), faces Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an African-American who, tired of criminal life, became a politician and now seeks to become the first public representative of color in a Chicago district.
This plot, where the young Daniel Kaluuya shines as Jamal's brother and muscle, is linked to the development of the three female protagonists, whose grieving processes are interrupted when they have to answer for the dirty business and the loose ends left by their deceased husbands. That in the middle of all this emerges the aforementioned heist movie, with genuinely fun moments but plot twists and a tone closer to Hollywood standards than the stuff from American Animals, makes Widows a minor effort in McQueen's filmography, showing his more generic and even complacent facet.