American Pastoral (2016)
American Pastoral (2016)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Release Date: October 21st, 2016 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Ewan McGregor Actors: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Uzo Aduba, Molly Parker, David Strathairn, Valorie Curry

 


 

“H

e had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.” While that quote from Philip Roth’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel doesn’t appear in the 2016 film adaptation, the message sheds insight into the often ambiguous meaning of the tragedies on display. It’s not so much that the audience is left without answers, but that sympathetic protagonist Seymour Levov remains robbed of the explanations as to why his once-idyllic family steadily disintegrates. “American Pastoral’s” power comes from this unsettling mystery and its persistence in realizing a somberly realistic world where bad things happen to good people simply because life is neither predictable nor picturesque. Levov’s disillusioned daughter believes that life is just a short period of time in which a person is alive. Heartbreak comes from Levov’s unwillingness to accept this bleak perspective – but so too does rumination and introspection on what matters most in the brevity.

Begrudgingly attending his 45th high school reunion, writer Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) learns that popular athlete and town hero Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor) recently passed away. Levov’s brother Jerry (Rupert Evans) imparts to Nathan the dolorous events surrounding the Swede’s family’s downfall, beginning with their troubled daughter Merry’s (Dakota Fanning) tumultuous childhood. When the disaffected, irascible teen is implicated in the bombing of a post office and disappears soon after, her prolonged absence causes both Swede and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to become increasingly distraught and withdrawn from the grievous realities facing them.

Like far too many films of late, “American Pastoral” chooses to bookend its story with a narration from a character who is of little consequence to any of the events that unfold. The audience never learns much about the narrator and he never once comes in contact (at least meaningfully) with any of the personas at the heart of the plot; he’s very much an outsider relating an intimate tale with which he has no expertise or personal experience (he’s there seemingly just to impart trivial commentary on collective inebriation and repellent sentimentality). It’s completely unnecessary to force the viewer back into his world (set some 45 years after the scenarios at hand) at the end, which makes his presence at the beginning just that much more disappointingly extraneous. It also puts the viewer at a distance from the Swede’s plight, rather than remaining by his side, with a shared outlook on the escalating misfortunes. It doesn’t translate well to the screen, even though it’s a faithful framing device taken straight from the source material.

This isn’t enough, however, to ruin the potency of this particular drama – even when patriotic music swells to initiate yet another flashback. Mirroring the downward spirals of “Revolutionary Road” or “Reservation Road” or “Rabbit Hole,” the ironic pastoral portrait of small town America slowly reveals itself to be harboring the darker, tormented visions one might find in “Blue Velvet.” And here, the motives cannot be explained with the simplicity of a psychopathic villain wreaking havoc or the accidental death of a child unraveling the lives of the parents. Instead, reasons are utterly elusive, yielding the notion that no one can truly understand the minds and persuasions of others, particularly when they’re insulated by the contentment of successful middle class existences. This is made disturbingly evident when historical elements are woven throughout the Levovs’ routines (Merry’s formative years involve the ‘50s and ‘60s), with Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, the self-immolation of a monk, the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, social upheavals (counterculture, antiestablishment, and civil rights movements), and corresponding violence all playing roles in shaping the psychological turmoil of young Merry. Brilliantly, the major theme of blame is never given an easy personification; there is no single, master puppeteer or brainwasher operating behind the scenes.

The painful deterioration of the family unit is not an easy watch. “American Pastoral” isn’t a mainstream movie and won’t have much appeal to general audiences. But its daring look at adolescent rebellion and adult disgruntlement warped by political evils – even when presented more as a history lesson than commercial entertainment – is perturbingly intriguing. At times the film is slow, but at others it unleashes powerful, believable horrors, all with the help of detailed recreations of the period, vivid cinematography, impressive makeup effects, and stellar performances by a first-rate cast (Connelly is easily the most stunning, relating a morbid transformation of terrifying proportions).

– The Massie Twins

  • 7/10