This is probably one of the only movies I’ve ever seen that is completely shrouded in mystery. I had no idea what the story was about. I saw imagery. I saw intensity. I saw Obi-Wan yelling at Cherry Curie, it was a big ole question mark and… by God, I was actually a little hyped. As curious about the story as I was, I didn’t give in to any temptation to reading anything about it. I went incompletely blind.
So lets take a look at the cast. The film stars Ewan McGregor, as we all should know from the Star Wars prequels, as well as MILES AWAY (2016), JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013), and his brief appearance in PULP FICTION (1994). Next, the ever gorgeous and ungodly talented Jennifer Connelly. You don’t see much of her, but she’s been amazing in everything she’s been in: REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), BLOOD DIAMOND (2006), and being the only good thing in HULK (2003), I’m ecstatic to see her here. The flick also stars Dakota Fanning… interesting, considering that she’s been living in New York mostly doing theatre, last I heard. While I do think that her younger sister Elle’s star has certainly found it’s own solar system, Dakota’s been a little iffy as far as her work’s been concerned. From the Twilight franchise, PUSH (2009), and the abysmal THE CAT IN THE HAT (2003), it wasn’t a star-making start. Sure she had a name that everyone recognized, but I doubt anyone thought she’d be more than a kid actor. But with some solid movies under her belt, like I AM SAM (2001), DREAMER (2005), and CHARLOTTE’S WEB (2006), it was clear that she had talent, but she was just never given a chance to really shine.
Now for behind the scenes. Directing is — *double take* “Ewan McGregor?!” Since when did he direct anything?! Well, hey, skin me alive and call me nakie, this is his feature length debut. Congrats, mister McGregor. Writing the screenplay is John Romano, known for THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011), INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003), and a few episodes of the TV show HELL ON WHEELS. The man behind the music is veteran composer Alexandre Desplat, known for THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS (2016), THE KING’S SPEECH (2010), and ARGO (2012). Finally, we have the cinematographer, Martin Ruhe, known for RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), THE AMERICAN (2010), and HARRY BROWN (2009).
I’m going in with some pretty high expectations. I think it’s going to be great, what with some really good talent attached. So let’s jump right in, this is my honest opinion of AMERICAN PASTORAL.
Based on the novel of the same name by Phillip Roth. Set during the 1960’s. Seymore “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor) is an ordinary American man, former star athlete, and married to his beautiful wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), who eventually have a stuttering daughter named Merry (Dakota Fanning). In her childhood, she was very close to her parents, but as a teenager, she becomes incredibly politically charged and learns to resent her parents for their apathetic attitude toward the political affairs happening around the world. Slowly, Merry becomes radicalized, hanging around groups of people who think just like her. Eventually, a post office is blown up and a man killed; an act of domestic terrorism, and Merry goes missing. The FBI believes that Merry had some kind of involvement. Wrestling with confusion, guilt, anger, sadness, Swede and Dawn begin chasing down any leads to discovering where their daughter is and what her true involvement in the explosion is.
DISCLAIMER: This review is probably the longest I’ve ever written, so feel free to read a little and come back later. Also, it’s pretty laced in SPOILERS, so you’ve been forewarned. I couldn’t help it. Everything worth talking about it in the most important scenes. So lets get started.
… Oh man, this is going to be a complicated one. Essentially, I believe that the center of the story is the emotional turmoil of a set of parents who, for the most part, are good parents, do most everything right, and yet their child just doesn’t take to it and becomes a terrorist. For the most part, the movie does a great job with that. McGregor is fantastic, Connelly is phenomenal, performances are great all around, but… there’s a ton of problems too.
The film has an unbearably confusing start. For those of you that saw its trailer, it’s a really dark and haunting-looking story while “Mad World” (performed by Jasmine Thompson) is playing over it. Well… the movie starts off with swing music. Really upbeat and holy crap did I get my expectations turned around. But whatever, I was rolling with it.
My first issue with the film is how there’s really unnecessary and uncomfortable scenes inserted for shock value. The first sin that rears its ugly head is toward the beginning when Swede and young Merry, played by Ocean James, are coming home from a camping trip. The strap on her dress is loose from her shoulder and… I’ll try to get through this without vomiting… asks her father three times, to kiss her… like he kisses her mom. You’re reading that right. You can even see it in McGregor’s eyes that he’s thinking, “I said ‘yes’ to this script… why did I say ‘yes’ to this script?” At this particular point, I’m sitting so uncomfortably in my chair that I was staring at the exit to my theatre, ready to make a beeline to the box office for a refund. I was absolutely terrified that the movie was really considering to use incest as the story’s central theme. Thank the almighty higher powers, that’s not the case, but what should bother the audience is that this scene never comes back into play. It’s never referenced again, carries to weight in future scenes, and has nothing to do with the story at large.
Even in the next scene, they’re sitting in the living room like a normal family watching TV. What did that scene add? What was the purpose of the scene? The next scene carried more weight and served a better purpose than that. Merry sees on TV a man burned alive. In the middle of the night, she has a nightmare and is bawling as to why the world is in such a bad state. Which kind of brings me to another problem I had with the first half of this movie. It gets really heavy-handed with it’s dialog. One of the lines Merry spews in that scene is, “Doesn’t anyone have a conscience?!” First of all, I don’t believe that girl even knows how to spell “conscience” let alone comprehend its meaning. I saw PINOCCHIO (1940) a million times like every other kid, but I was utterly convinced that “conscience” was another word for “cricket.” In any case, any cynic would have seen this scene’s effects from a mile away. Even in the beginning of the movie, Swede’s father Lou, played by Peter Reigert, is saying things like, “A child can’t make decisions!” But more on that later. Let’s move on.
Now we shoot forward to when Merry is a sixteen year old girl. All of a sudden, she’s politically charged. More on this in a bit, but this brings up another issue I had with the first act of the film: teenage Merry is ANNOYING!!! She’s one of those teenagers that yells at her disciplining parents, “you democratic yadda yadda,” “what kind of fascist bullshit is this?!” and hangs out with other politically radical teenagers like her, you know, that old story. It’s about as annoying as you can freakin’ imagine. None of this is given context, so the audience just sees a bratty adolescent bitch who is seriously asking for the backside of her father’s hand. Although, considering the borderline incest scene, she might consider that first base. *barf*
But let me be fair here. As obnoxiously cliché as Merry is, Fanning isn’t churning out a bad performance. You see the snide contempt she has toward her parents for their inaction to injustice, and I don’t blame her for the character she’s portraying. Like many of her roles in the past, she’s not bad per se, but because her characters are so underdeveloped, it’s hard to connect with her actions and see her side of things. So I won’t be surprised it some say that she’s bad, but I don’t see it that way.
And it’s right after this scene that some post office is blown up and so begins the father and the FBI looking for Merry. First of all, the film itself brings up a great point on itself: where did Merry learn to make a bomb? Is that a class she learned in New York? Did I miss that shit in community college? Psychology 101, Astrology 1, Remedial Bomb-making. Shit, I knew I should have looked at that list of classes more thoroughly. But fine. If that was my biggest problem with this movie, it’d be downright great.
But this is where the movie takes an interesting turn. It now pulls through with its original idea: focus on the parents’ suffering. Here, we get the confusion from Swede and Dawn. They’re scared, they’re angry, their defensive, they run the gauntlet of emotions that you’d imagine a set of parents would go through if something like this happened. It’s great. McGregor and Connelly shine. There’s this scene right after where they visit the wife of the murdered victim of the post office bombing and Swede’s all like, “We’re so sorry. We don’t know what happened. No one knows what happened. But if you should blame anyone, blame me. I only blame myself for this.” But then the woman is all like, “I don’t blame you.” I don’t know how well I can explain this, but that line floored me. I thought, what a fucking breath of fresh air that there’s a character who knows that this mother and father did everything right, and yet everything went horribly wrong, kind of feeding back into the line earlier in the movie, “Children can’t make decisions.” Well, Merry’s sixteen, and many consider that age to still be a child, so… decision made, grandpa! The wife does eventually go into saying, “Our family is still the same,” which is a really chilling line if you think about it. Even though this woman’s husband is gone, the father of his children is dead, they’ll pull through in the end because they have love to keep them sustained. The way she looks at McGregor in this scene is a testament to the man’s directing because this woman’s look that she gives Swede and Dawn is brilliant. Her eyes and tone speak volumes: “We’ll be fine. You won’t be.” She doesn’t say that, but that’s what I read from her expression. It’s impossible to decipher if she means it in a nasty, hurtful way, or if she means it in a sympathetic way. This is one of the best scenes in the movie.
Moving forward, we have YET ANOTHER glaring problem I had with the movie. So by this point, years have gone by and there’s been more domestic bombings from political extremists, and Merry continues to be a question mark. One day, trying to continue with his daily life, Swede is introduced to Rita, played by Valerie Curry. At first, she’s just a normal student doing research and pops by the factory where Swede works. Quickly, it’s discovered that she’s actually one of the radicalists who claims to know Merry. They essentially meet twice. The first time to hand off some of Merry’s personal possessions and mocking how Merry doesn’t want to see him with some incredibly frustrating dialog, I might add, but it’s the second meeting that drives me absolutely nuts. Rita wants Swede to give her gja large sum of money in exchange for information on Merry’s whereabouts. Long story short, she tries to seduce him into having sex with her. Um… where the hell did this come from? She wants a man that she doesn’t like to sexually please her? How does that make sense? “To give you a hard dose of reality.” That’s her line and it makes about as much sense as it sounds. But what’s infuriating about this scene is that the whole time, it’s all, “fuck me, and I’ll tell you where she is,” and Swede is just standing there like a statue, taking all this emotional abuse and bullshit, no realistic reaction whatsoever. If it were me, I’d be saying to this bitch, “Take shots of bleach, you sick cunt. I’m taking this money and I’m gone. You want it, earn it. Take me to my daughter. Otherwise, you know jack shit.” She got what she wanted the first time with no fight, and she gets away with her actions a second time with very little fight. It’s maddening to think that this is our protagonist.
You see one of the biggest problems with the movie? For every one great scene, you have two incredibly horribly handled ones. Logic and common sense is abandoned for the illusion of suspense and shock value, which this movie seems to think is what will drive the story forward and it doesn’t. It grinds it to a screeching halt while everyone’s tearing hair off their heads. Trust me, though, more on Rita in a little while. It gets almost hilarious.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the next sequence. Finally, we return to the original idea of the story: the parents suffering. This time, it’s more of a focus on Dawn rather than Swede. Not a bad idea, she’s been more or less pushed to the background for a lot of the movie, so it’s about time that Connelly took the spotlight and boy does she. I’m not even talking about the scene where she goes insane, completely undressed, wearing nothing but her beauty queen sash in the middle of her husband’s factory. I do confess that it’s an odd location to go insane like this, but it still sets up future scenes of utter amaze from Connelly. Dawn is taken to psych ward to be looked after and eventually tells Swede that she blames him for how her life ended up. That she was happy with who she was before she met him and this mental instability is all that she has to show for it. Again, I admit that I don’t fully understand why we’re only discovering this about her now, more than half way through the film, but it’s still a powerful performance. A scene or two later, we learn that she wants to move on with her life via a face lift. While Swede doesn’t want to put the past behind him, Dawn clearly does and wants a new life.
Once again, this is a wonderful direction that’s been taken with these characters. They seem to be representatives of two different sides of ideas. One parent can’t let go and give up hope on their one and only child, whereas the other does. This is amazing because it’s impossible to argue either side without feeling sympathy for the other. How does one simply disown their child? That can’t be a decision made lightly. But on the other hand, maybe it’s not such a hard decision if their child is, well, let’s face it, a terrorist? There’s no evidence to prove otherwise and every lead has proven to be either a dead end or a lie. Who wouldn’t go insane after such heartbreak? Especially for Dawn, who has been so cruelly mistreated by Merry throughout her teen years, it’s pretty understandable why she’d go this route with herself, even if Swede doesn’t agree.
Fast-forward and Dawn’s got her face lift and feels like a million bucks. She’s learned to find peace with the past. But guess who makes a sudden appearance. Rita! Pretty fucking coincidentally too. Swede spots her across the street from the art gallery that he and Dawn were in. He grabs her and demands answers. Ready for some confusion? She’s scared and she, “can’t take it anymore.” Since when was the audience supposed to sympathize with her? She was practically the story’s antagonist for a while. She relished the suffering that Swede was going through. Why is now so different?
Well, now she brings him to Merry. Yup, Merry was in their hometown the whole time, being homeless and taking up a strange Indian religion, entailing no bathing and wearing a veil so she doesn’t harm anything, even bacteria or insects or whatever. This is both fantastic and one of the final nails in the coffin for how this movie fails. On the one hand, you know exactly why she’s doing this. She feels guilty for her role in the bombings, distanced herself from everything she ever knew and loved and kept to herself. As the movie remorsefully has to point out to us, “It’s penance.” It’s some pretty stirring imagery to see Merry in such a state. But now that brings me to my problem with it as well. The last time we saw Merry, she was accusing her parents of imprisoning her in her own house because they didn’t want her hanging out with the wrong crowd. An hour and half later, we now see that she’s completely transformed. When did this happen?
There’s an obvious implication that the story is supposed to take place from Swede’s perspective. But the story does veer into different perspectives a couple times. Had they gotten rid of certain elements from the movie and instead dedicated some time to Merry’s inner turmoil, I think a lot of wrongs could have been rectified. While not a bad idea to show the parents’ struggles, I feel like the movie would have been great had they included the notion that the kids are part of the equation too. Because we never see what got Merry so political in the first place, and we don’t see when she abandoned all that, we still have very little to connect with the character. While it’s clever that the movie never really explains if Merry was really manipulated or brainwashed, it’s not enough. Telling us that she was raped once, sure, you feel bad, but that feels like forced sympathy. It’s far more interesting if her development was simply out of guilt for her part in killing five people. The struggles she went through to get away from those that still believed what they believed. How she ended up finding this religion of hers. When she came back home. All of this is completely glanced over and we’re supposed to be okay with that.
I’m nearing the end of the rest of the story, but honestly, I’m tired. There’s an affair, there’s no fight to bring Merry home and he never sees her again, Swede dies years later, and Merry visits her father at his funeral, making for an admittedly thought-provoking closing shot. Some of it is handled great, others, infuriating. That’s this movie. A combination of great and awful. So I guess it’s just… okay. There’s a lot to love. The performances, the realized ideas, it’s all there. But there’s also a lot of disgustingly stupid scenes that infect an otherwise effective story, as well as some ideas that the movie should probably have considered to make it great. So… viewer beware, is the best I can say. I can’t say I hated it, but I sure don’t love it. It’s hard to pin down exactly how I feel about it, so… that’s how I’m going to end this review.
My honest rating for AMERICAN PASTORAL: 3/5
Upcoming hopeful reviews:
- JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK
- KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
- OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL
- BOO! A MADEA HALLOWEEN
- THE HANDMAIDEN
- EL JEREMIAS