If Andrew Haigh, the director of Weekend, the earnest, prosaic, and mostly unsurprising British drama that won an Emerging Visions Audience Award at South by Southwest last night, is considered a fresh new voice in cinema, then what about Matt D'Elia, who shows more breathtaking audacity in his debut feature, American Animal, than Haigh shows in his Richard Linklater-ish romantic talkfest? Don't get me wrong: Weekend, for all its gay-themed subject matter, is agreeable and sometimes quite moving. What it lacks is the brash confidence that American Animal exudes in abundance, the confidence of an artist willing to risk driving its audience up a wall in order to realize a defiantly unique personal vision. You won't necessarily warm to everything D'Elia throws at you, but you certainly won't leave the film without some kind of opinion on it.
The "American animal" of the title is Jimmy, played by D'Elia himself as a spastic mess of unpredictable vocal tics and seemingly out-of-nowhere outbursts. Jimmy, unbeknownst to his more normal-behaving roommate, James (Brendan Fletcher), is dying (he's seen coughing up blood into a sink on a few occasions), and this knowledge seems to have freed him to be the crazed figure you see on screen. But this isn't just random psychosis: Jimmy seems to have developed an entire worldview in which he—coming as he does from a privileged background—considers himself at the end of the evolutionary ladder, and so what's the point of living by unwritten rules of morality or etiquette anymore? To him, that's the kind of thing that we should evolve beyond. Jimmy is, in a sense, an exaggerated version of a hippie, spending all his time and energy railing against the Man without offering any solutions of his own; in Jimmy's case, he has gone way past caring about the outside world altogether.
James, for one, has decided that he doesn't want to live Jimmy's go-nowhere, unemployed-and-proud-of-it lifestyle anymore. He has found a temporary office job at the beginning of the film, but he fears breaking this news to Jimmy, afraid he might see this as a betrayal of sorts. And so it proves when, midway through American Animal, he's forced to break the news, resulting in a verbal battle of wills between the two, with both trying to argue for their respective worldviews. Is it James who's being real and Jimmy who is basking in a fantasy world, or is Jimmy the one who speaks hard truths about the world and James blindly falling into bourgeois conformist traps? Because Jimmy is conceived and performed as such an outsize comic caricature, it's easy to sympathize more with James and thus to assume D'Elia's own sympathies lie with him—and yet a sense of unease resulting from Jimmy's vigorously voiced convictions remains. Much of this, by the way, is set during a small, marijuana-fueled gathering in their apartment featuring two women friends, both named Angela; one (Mircea Monroe) is strangely attracted to Jimmy, while the other (Angela Sarafyan) keeps saying she finds him "weird" and "crazy"—until she ends up on a couch having sex with him, still high apparently.
This is wildly ambitious subject matter for a first film, but it's the style of American Animal that makes it as fascinating as it is. The first half hour or so is so off-putting in its deliberately awkward comic timing and jump cut-heavy editing style that I started to wonder if, in fact, I myself needed to be stoned in order to fully get on its bizarre wavelength. As the film goes on, however, D'Elia eases up on the awkwardness and jump-cut montages and settles into a more classical style; at times, it feels as if we're watching a filmed stage play rather than a movie. In this case, though, this doesn't seem to be the sign of a non-cinematic sensibility; the way D'Elia divides his film up into acts suggests he wants us to be aware of the film's theatricality. In a sense, the film's style could be said to be correspond with Jimmy's, if you look at his behavior as a performance, with the walls of his apartment substituting for the four walls of a stage. In addition, classical music is heavily featured on the soundtrack—a facile irony, one might think at first considering Jimmy's behavior, until one realizes that this is the kind of music Jimmy enjoys listening to. That and movies are the art forms he seems drawn to the most; thus the film is chock full of film references, to everything from John Wayne and Dean Martin to 2001: A Space Odyssey and There Will Be Blood. (This, by the way, stands in stark contrast to James, who prefers to read books and newspapers.)
I've tried my best to describe the experience of watching American Animal and give some of my thoughts on what the film is possibly about. For a film as strange as this, perhaps that's the only thing a critic can do for his readers, other than urging them to give said film a try. And if, like me, you enjoy watching films that challenge viewers to step into a filmmaker's own headspace, however oddball that space may seem on the surface, then D'Elia's debut feature is, I think, a challenge worth taking. Here, it appears, is a real emerging vision, original, gutsy, and uncompromising.
American Animal played on March 14 as part of this year's SWSW.