Film can do many things. Inspiring awe in its viewers, drawing tears out of their tear ducts, or bringing laughs right from the gut, film is unlike many other artistic mediums. However, sometimes these pretensions can become far more important than the substance that they are aiding.
Thankfully, that’s not quite the case when it comes to Matt D’Elia’s new piece of performance art put to celluloid, American Animal.
Making its premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, the film is a bit of a confounding piece of feature filmmaking, that while it may not be at home in any big cinema or your local multiplex, it’s not only a film that should be seen, but one that I expect will become quite popular on the art museum scene, as frankly, it should.
The film has a relatively simple premise. Following a dying young man named Jimmy (played by D’Elia), we are privy to a night, and morning, in the life of this man, as he interacts with his roommate and best friend, James, and two young women named Blonde Angela and Not Blonde Angela. A meditation on human nature and the lack of control that we humans give ourselves over what we truly want to do in this life, American Animal is a flawed film, but one that is wholly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. For better and for worse.
American Animal is a confounding motion picture. Whether it be the film’s strikingly off kilter performances, or it’s neo-realist lighting and framing, the film itself is a breathtaking piece of performance art.
The real star of this film doesn’t get any screen time, and it isn’t behind the camera, but it’s what holds up this film; it’s themes. A mishmash of comedic tones and stark angst, American Animal stakes its claim on the top of the mountain of those who believe that we as humans should attempt to not only reject organized work, but intellectualism as a whole. Proclaiming that he simply wants to ‘put on the ritz because he can, so why shouldn’t he,’ Animal is a film that firmly believes that to further ourselves as living beings, we should lose our connection to things such as schooling and labor, and simply live the way we want to live. Whether that be proclaiming oneself like Dean Martin, or creating an entire language, the film is an odd little film that strives to be a singular piece of art, while also rejecting a lot of the intellectualism that comes within the art world.
And then there are the performances, which is quite possibly some of the most interesting, and also some of the most polarizing, pieces of acting you’ll see all year.
The real star of this show is obviously Matt D’Elia as Jimmy. Like a bearded Jesus with a penchant for talking to dogs and walking around naked, D’Elia gives this character a very preacher like performance. Going off on monologue after monologue, even acknowledging the fact that he’s giving a monologue in one of the most telling scenes of this entire film, D’Elia gives pitch perfect line readings (as he should, he wrote the damn thing), and also somehow gives an emotional depth to a film that shouldn’t, on the face of things, be able to have such a core. Brendan Fletcher co-stars here as the calm, cool, and collected James, Jimmy’s best friend. Theories abound for this film, but Fletcher gives a pitch perfect performance, as if he is the other half of Jimmy’s lost psyche. Rounding out the film’s cast are Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan, with the former being the strongest actor in the pair. She gives the film a real emotional core that balances well with the existential and often darkly comedic turn given by D’Elia.
That said, the film itself isn’t without flaw.
The biggest flaw this film gets tripped up on is ultimately its runtime. Clocking in at a dense and poorly paced 95 minutes, the film is about 15 minutes too long, and it feels about 30. It’s not a poorly crafted film, as D’Elia is really a talented filmmaker, particularly with regards to his compositions, but for a story like this, it just frankly doesn’t flow as well as one would hope. Coming to a complete standstill multiple times, American Animal could do with a good 15 minutes trimmed off, and it would not only make the film far more enjoyable, but it would also make the film’s themes all the more intriguing and potent, as the film wouldn’t be running over itself as it does near the end.
Overall, American Animal isn’t truly a film. It’s a performance piece placed onto celluloid, and is not only an entertaining and well shot piece, but also one that will leave you thinking for quite some time. Now only if more film’s followed suit.