Ewan McGregor both directs and stars in the Philip Roth adaption of the novel by the same name, he is joined by Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning in this exploration of turbulent family life.
There are spoilers in this review.
I am at a slight disadvantage in that I have not read the Philip Roth book that this film is based on, nor have I read any of Roth’s books so I am unfamiliar with his work. So although I have now seen ‘American Pastoral’ twice, I not entirely sure what is McGregor’s influence and what is Roth’s in this film. However, from reading articles around Roth’s work when this film first came out I got distinct impression that there is a complexity and depth to Roth’s work that films have yet to be fully encapsulated.
‘American Pastoral’ marks Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, an ambitious first step based on those aforementioned articles I saw when the film was first released. There is such depth in this film’s themes, imagery and Mise en Scene, that it requires several viewings to fully grasp it all and even then, some things are still lost to me. This is something I consider the mark of a great film, one that contains so much substance that it not only requires multiple viewings but also embeds itself in the mind. Some of these narrative threads it must be said are frustratingly never resolved, though I’m not sure whose head this falls on, McGregor’s or Roth’s. However, this is a film that, perhaps owing to my ignorance of Roth’s work, I found to be quite profound and fascinating. To the extent that not only, as I say, did I watch the film twice to understand the films many layered components, but I have also downloaded the book.
The film opens with the narrative voice of Nathan Zuckerman, played by David Strathairn, who is no doubt a personification of Roth himself. Zuckerman, who is attending his high school reunion, initially provides the context for this film. World War II is over, the Great Depression is over and, according to Zukerman, there is a euphoria felt by that generation that has never been felt before, nor will it exist again. At this reunion, Zuckerman bumps into his high school best friend Jerry Levov, and it is through Jerry that the narrative of the film is presented as he tells Zuckerman the story of his brother, Swede Levov, the high school golden boy known as ‘The Swede’, who is the protagonist of the film. I tell you this, because it is my interpretation of this film, and potentially of the book, that this is very much a man’s story, told by men to men for men.
McGregor plays Swede, the all American Jewish man, the top athlete in school, and the son of a wealthy industry owner who makes leather gloves. He marries his high school sweetheart, the winner of a beauty pageant, who works on the family farm. The pair, with their daughter Merry, live on a huge expanse of land as Swede now runs his Father’s business, which employees 80% black workers. They are the living embodiment of the American Dream, further highlighted by scenes such as Swede driving his red and white Cadillac to the gas station, as American’s refer to it. Where the American Flag has been raised high on its flag pole in front of a building painted and decorated in red white and blue. Swede pays for his petrol, greeting the working class Americans who own the place and whom he knows by name because they live in a quiet small town. Swede then drives his car back home where his wife and daughter can be seen walking towards him with open arms, where his small daughter run towards him open armed screaming with delight “Daddy”.
This entire scene places Swede as the All-American family man, and more importantly the legend because this is entirely relayed by his brother Jerry to Zuckerman at that reunion. Swede is the family man, a Jewish owner of an industrial company, while his beautiful wife is at home working the fields, covering the agricultural aspect of American hard labour and life. Jerry quite clearly does not like his niece, Merry, and his own story besides being the narrator to Zuckerman is never developed enough, despite having some quite profound lines throughout.
Swede’s daughter, Merry Levov, who is played by three actresses, the best of whom is Hannah Nordberg, is a confident and fun little girl, who appears all too briefly in my opinion. She has a stutter and sees a therapist because of it, the therapist proposes an idea to Swede and Dawn that the stutter maybe an affectation brought on because of Merry’s desire to be viewed differently from her parents, parents who the film presents as a personification of all the great characteristics of American culture. It was at this moment in the film where my attention was grabbed, as it teased an interesting and intelligent premise. One which suggests that there are deeper themes in the book that this film does not explore in a satisfactory manner. When some of these themes are explored, they are portrayed in a confusing way, and whilst there are some intelligent and prominent moments. It is a condition of the human mind that these small unanswered threads stay in your mind as you seek answers that McGregor fails to provide, despite a great attempt at adapting this work.
One such example of these unanswered narrative threads can be found in the scene involving the pick-up truck. Merry and Swede are returning home from a camping trip. Swede has stopped by the roadside to pick some flowers for his wife and Merry’s mother Dawn, played by Jennifer Connelly. Upon returning to the truck we see that the strap of Merry’s white dress has fallen off her shoulder, the one closest to Swede. Once Swede hands these flowers to Merry for safe keeping, she holds them in front of her as though she is a bridesmaid or at her prom. She then asks her father to kiss her, which he does, she then repeats the question more firmly, demanding that he should kiss her like he does her mother.
On first viewing this scene makes little sense, indeed it still puzzles me to an extent as to its role in the film. My current interpretation is that there is something sinister at play here, something McGregor tries but ultimately fails to explain coherently in my opinion. My current working theory which is evidenced throughout the film is that it is my impression that Roth really dislikes women. Women who are trying to trick him in one way or another no matter their age, this theme continually appears in the film. This scene is further evidence of McGregor’s overly ambitious attempt to adapt a Roth novel, and though I do love a film that must be viewed several times to begin to fully grasp it’s many layers. These layers are so complex or missing key components that I wish a more experienced director had been at the helm.
Though the film opens with World War II, it is the Vietnam war which acts as a gateway for Merry’s rebellion and ultimately as her excuse for becoming the driving force between her parents. Though initially her purpose is political, with a hatred of the government sending soldiers to Vietnam and the discrimination against the black community. This focus dissolves into anger at the world, an anger at materialistic and capitalist perceptions of the world, that as Swede notes is expressed in a series of clichés.
The film then shifts focus to the relationship between the father, the mother and their daughter against the background of various political movements such as discrimination and riots. And it is this family relationship that is both rich in detail and meaning and has only strengthened my belief that Roth has quite a significant problem with women.
If Swede and Dawn represent capitalism, then Merry represents everything opposed to the idea. As a child, Merry watches the famous moment in history where a Monk sets himself on fire in the middle of the street as a protest against the war. This moment sparks in Merry the transformation from child to teenager, from a happy childhood deeply embedded in a materialistic but advantageous world. To one where she despises everything, mostly through illogical thoughts, hate for hate’s sake rather than hate for purpose or to defy the system for a greater purpose.
When Swede tries to inspire and convert Merry’s passion for anger into something with purpose, she blows up the Post Office/Petrol station mentioned previously, a personification of the destruction of the American Dream. Merry, who at this point is played by a less convincing Dakota Fanning, runs away and is not seen until the very end of the film where she seems to have found a sense of peace in Jainism.
Roth’s purpose with Merry’s character is that of an extremely lost, hurt and confused child, trying to find her place in the world through ideology and philosophy. Initially rebelling against everything, and in particular her mother for unclear reasons, until she is forced to cut away anything that contains a connection to the world and it’s many complications. Her a juxtaposition with her Mother is a fascinating theme that McGregor makes a solid attempt at constructing. Indeed, this relationship is better than Swede’s relationship to Merry which, beyond the simple premise of wishing his daughter to return home, is contaminated with a sexual theme which is never explained.
Roth subjects nearly all the main women in his book to absolute horror, pain and torment, whilst most of the women in supporting roles are deceitful and manipulative. Roth’s problem with women can be evidenced in this family dynamic, whilst the daughter is the cause of this family’s hardship, she is quite clearly mentally damaged and experiences truly horrific moments, which are mentioned but never seen thankfully. Dawn too suffers from a mental breakdown, going to dramatic lengths to fix her own life, including having an affair and subjecting herself to plastic surgery. She chooses to hide in the materialistic world that her daughter so despises, and yet Swede, who apart from appearing desperate to find his daughter, undergoes little transformation but is instead betrayed by nearly all the prominent women in his life.
Oddly enough those who connected to open rebellion against the government are all women, despite this supposedly affecting an entire generation of teenagers who feel disenfranchised, and every victim seen or mentioned by gender is a man. In one particular scene where Swede visits the office of the FBI who are searching for Merry in connection to the bombing, and where a man was killed, a newspaper article is discussed between the two men regarding another bombing that has occurred. Two women are suspects in this attack and the FBI is aware that at least one of the suspects is an upper-class girl whose parents are on holiday. Further into the film a news report is seen on TV where teenagers are interviewed following the continued bombings and riots against the government, but it is a teenage girl who is the spokeswoman for the entire movement. Though this could be seen as women taking charge while men sit idle, these movements are seen as the villains of the film.
Further to my argument that Roth really does not like women is the character of Rita Cohen, played by Valorie Curry. Rita acts as the third party between Swede and his daughter Merry who at this point seems to want nothing to do with her family. Though this relationship is compelling and certainly heightens the feeling of suspense and desperation of Merry’s parents, there is one scene that uses a sinister and unexplained tone. Rita contacts Dawn and demands that Swede meets her in a hotel room, Swede arrives only to find a Rita dressed as a school girl who wants to have sex with him as a form of manipulation. This scene, I believe, links back to the one previously mentioned when Merry is a child with her father in that pick-up truck and wants her father to kiss her. Though is unclear which actions are Rita’s ideas and which she has been instructed to perform, Rita is supposedly acting on Merry’s behalf. Though later in the film Merry seems to have no idea who Rita is. Rita propositions Swede for sex by spreading her legs on the hotel bed with Swede stood at the foot of it, she then pleasures herself and says, “do you want to know what I taste like”, then once her fingers have moved from Swede’s mouth trying to tempt him, to then licking her own fingers she says, “Your Daughter”. Nothing more is said about this, nor is this thread explained in any way. One could interpret this theme as an expression of Roth’s perception that women cannot be trusted as they use their powers of seduction against men no matter their connection to you.
The character of Dawn is another display of men telling stories to other men from the perspective of a man who does not like women. Dawn is Merry’s mother, a pageant beauty contest winner, she is a hard farm worker who is initially seen as a strident and determinate woman. She stands her ground against characters such as her father-in-law Lou Levov, who is brilliantly played by Peter Riegert. As Merry grows up a significant void grows between her and Dawn and once Merry disappears Dawn becomes desperate and mentally unbalanced. Dawn’s final tipping point being Swede’s failed attempt to locate their daughter after he meets Rita in the hotel room, which results in Rita’s public breakdown at Swede’s work.
My problem is not with Dawn’s response to Merry’s disappearance, nor is it on the imbalance between Swede character development to his daughter’s disappearance in comparison to Dawn’s. My problem is that Dawn quite literally gives up on her daughter and tries to begin a new life in the world of art, and by having an affair with a man with a high position in the art world. Now I am not a parent, but I do not believe for a moment that Dawn as a mother, who has shown a far greater concern over her relationship with her daughter than Swede does, would abandon the search and start a new life. I cannot help but feel this is yet another example of a sexist male perception that women are weaker than men, that they are deceitful creatures who conspire against him despite his efforts for good and justice. However, the juxtaposition of the mother and daughter’s journey after Merry leaves is compelling.
As far as a first directorial effort goes, this is a very good attempt at some really ambitious material, and I did enjoy the mise en scène throughout the film. It just doesn’t quite have that depth and punch it ought to, there are so many moments when it is close to breaking the surface but does not quite grasp the depth of what it is trying to accomplish, with one too many threads unanswered. Though I do think McGregor should pursue directing as he does have a measure of skill and a certain eye for detail, he should not have both starred and directed this film as there is a certain energy lacking in his performance. Indeed, the supporting cast provides very grounded and strong performances whilst the main cast seems to struggle at times. The script is not a fluid as perhaps it should be, with a mixture of profound statements that at times lack the strength needed to further explore some fascinating perceptions and ideas.
OVERALL *** A really solid attempt by McGregor at adapting some really quite substantial and rich material. I would have preferred it if he either directed or starred in the film, not both as his energy is lacking somewhat from his performance and the script and direction lack clarification in some respects. Really strong supporting cast.
RECOMMENDATION – A would actually highly recommend this film, it’s as complex as it is vast and really embeds itself in your mind.