In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Every year there comes a movie that everyone else hates and I end up loving. For 2016, I’d like to bestow that honor upon American Pastoral, the adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which also marks the directorial debut of Ewan McGregor. The dividing line for positive/negative reviews seems to fall between those who have read the source novel and those who have not. I have not, but I most certainly will. American Psycho is probably the only film adaptation which I believe should be seen before reading the book. Had I read Bret Easton Ellis’s maddeningly detailed masterpiece prior to watching the adaptation, I’d have deemed the film a failure, despite it being truly special. I wonder if the same goes for American Pastoral, titular similarities aside. Pastoral is a streamlined version of what is surely a dense story, but without the point of comparison, it feels complete, even if a little disjointed.
The 1960s were a turbulent time for much of America. We had an assassinated president, racial unrest, and a war that seemed both unjust and without end. American Pastoral is set mostly in the town of Old Rimrock, following the seemingly picturesque life of Seymour “Swede” Levov. He’s a former high school sports hero, a two-star marine, and the owner-operator of a ladies’ glove factory, which proudly employs men and women of color while staunchly refusing to send labor overseas. He’s married to a former Miss New Jersey, and together they are raising a daughter on an expansive farm. Swede’s life is charmed for sure, but as alleged by the framing device – a high school reunion at which one of Swede’s past acquaintances is hearing for the first time what happened to Old Rimrock’s golden child in the years passed – things aren’t always as they seem.
At the age of 16, Swede’s daughter Merry is the polar opposite of what her name suggests. The combination of teenage rebellion and a desire to be a part of a simmering social revolution causes tension amongst the Levov family. Merry does not get along with her mother, and her loving relationship with Swede grows more volatile with each passing moment. One day, an improvised explosive destroys the local post office, killing a worker in the process. It’s this same day that Merry disappears, leaving the town wondering if she was the culprit. This understandably causes a rift in the Levov family, and we get to watch as Swede suffers great pains to find Merry and prevent his once-perfect life from falling apart.
It’s a brutal watch, especially given the unflappable kindness at the heart of our central character. Swede’s quite privileged, but he doesn’t act it, choosing instead to spread his blessings as far as they can go, even if it means “selling out” to the very system against which Merry rages.
Ewan McGregor puts on a strong showing as a first time filmmaker, especially considering the difficulties which faced this production (he was brought on later in the pre-production game, after much trouble and delay). He is helped greatly by cinematographer, Martin Ruhe, who matches the visual design to the state of the Levov family’s decay, beat by beat. The central story begins right and sunny, almost dreamlike, but as time passes, the decor matches the changing fashion, while the color palette becomes fittingly dour, all the while remaining beautiful – no doubt a visual way of depicting Swede’s attempts at keeping up appearances amongst familial torment.
McGregor’s performance is nothing short of stellar. It’s clear that he’s been champing at the bit to take a crack at Seymour Levov for some time, and since he’s the director, the performance is all his own. He is unrestrained, but admirably muted. Few actors would be able to keep their ego in check given free reign over a tremendously meaty character. And when it comes to hiding his accent, there aren’t many who do it better. Also firing on all cylinders is Jennifer Connelly, who captures a precise level of suburban ennui which, as it turns into madness, could easily err on the side of manic fault. She never gets there, even during a scene where she literally goes insane.
Perhaps the most surprising performance goes to Dakota Fanning’s Merry. In another film, this stuttering caricature would seem false, but Fanning makes even the most extreme actions feel motivated, despite being absent for much of the film. I suspect that many will disagree, but the way Pastoral is presented – like a tweaked soap opera – lends itself to a cast that can go big without going (say it in Trump’s voice) HUUUUUGE.
American Pastoral clearly has Academy goals, but it’s unlikely, given the early reception, to achieve any of them. I do suspect, however, that this will gain an audience with time. Roth is an author that many have deemed unadaptable, but American Pastoral gets more right than it gets wrong. This should be applauded.
So if you haven’t read the book, see the movie. If you have, maybe wait it out a bit. Either way, Roth’s novel is likely to move plenty of units in the coming weeks.
American Pastoral opens in Philly theaters today.