Imagine a twentysomething couple so drunk on love, so indifferent to societal norms, and so single-mindedly codependent that they’re more animal than man. Oh, the mad, mad, fiery purity of it all! How they burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles! With Animals, director Collin Schiffli likes his symbolism bold and unabashed, even going so far as to intercut actual footage of wild mammals into the day-to-day bliss-outs of two heroine-addled road warriors, Jude (David Dastmalchian) and Bobbie (Kim Shaw), whose preciousness is signaled by gender-ambiguous names. The movie opens on an underwater image of manatees and has the gall to rhyme the shot at the end with the lovers themselves, a one-to-one equivalence that, depending on your tolerance for elementary cinema grammar, will be either insipid or poignant.
It’s hard, however, to imagine a case where the latter response would be possible, as the film’s drama is as plagued by tunnel vision as its central characters. The script’s mission is cut and dry: establish the seemingly boundless love shared by Jude and Bobbie and then methodically demonstrate its slow dissolution via heroine abuse and negligent behavior. Schiffli reveals the details of the couple’s relationship piecemeal, and it’s only after several jazzy montages of offhand behavioral observation—much of it romantically backlit and shot in “intimate” handheld style (read: widescreen slackness)—that we learn of their various trickster methods for obtaining funds, or of their desire to eventually hit the road and get out of Chicago. Troublingly, the movie often signals the rot of the Windy City through its characterization of drug dealers as brooding black men in dilapidated housing complexes.
Complicating outside reality rarely intervenes, and when it does, it merely conforms to the tenor of their psychological trajectory at that point, as in a scene when an unconvincingly benevolent security guard (John Heard) bolsters Bobbie’s moment of realization with fresh pizza and life advice. One pillow shot of a suspicious onlooker during an early needle binge in a fast-food joint bathroom offers a hint of a more complex cinematic world with tensions between character and landscape. Alas, on the whole, Schiffli’s emphasis sticks firmly to a Kerouac-lite immersion into young love rather than a more provocative portrait of the hazards inherent to modern urban life.
When the emboldened, contrasting emotional registers of the narrative (romantic recklessness and skittish criminal anxiety) collide in the third act, Schiffli plays with a montage of tonal hard shifts that starts to resemble a We Won’t Grow Old Together knockoff. The film leavens its increasingly downward-spiraling sequence of events—she worries about a possible unwanted pregnancy; she discovers what might be cancer; they get bad heroine; the heroine falls on a dirty floor; they’re caught by cops; and so on—with increasingly abbreviated bouts of drugged-up ecstasy, most eye-rollingly after a curt jump cut shifts from a post-car-crash screaming match to a backseat nuzzle-fest. Drama this easy stands to benefit greatly from dominating performances, and Dastmalchian (who wrote the script) and Shaw make an honest effort; one suspects they’ve gone outright Method in inhabiting their characters’ lanky, jittery physicalities. But the barrage of banalities that floods Dastmalchian’s screenplay (“Nothing before you, nothing after you” exemplifies the often purplish tone) too frequently finds its way out of the actors’ mouths without having made the leap from something written to something lived. For a film that seeks to break through clichés of heroine users as merely reclusive and down-on-their-luck, taking a hit in naturalism isn’t exactly a happy accident.