American Pastoral Review
American Pastoral (2016) Film Review from the 41st Annual Toronto International Film Festival, a movie directed by Ewan McGregor, and starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly, Ewan McGregor, Uzo Aduba, Valorie Curry, Molly Parker, David Strathairn, Rupert Evans, Peter Riegert, Hannah Nordberg, Mark Hildreth, Emily Peachey, Ocean James, David Whalen, and Justin Clarke.
American Pastoral is actor Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut. Based on a novel of the same name by Phillip Roth, the film is about the life of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a former high school football champion who marries Miss America and moves into the humble suburbs of Newark in pursuit of his American Dream. If you think this sounds ridiculous, it is. A lot of films at TIFF have ended in generous applause. At the end of American Pastoral, the woman sitting next to me turned to me and asked, “What the hell was that?” Swede’s dream, as well as the film itself, quickly turns into a nightmare as his daughter Merry (Fanning) takes an interest in anti-war protests and disappears overnight.
The film’s core themes are unapologetically sexist. When Merry struggles with a stutter, her therapist suggests that it’s caused subconsciously by Freudian sexual jealousy over her beautiful mother. This message that Merry’s unhappiness, and subsequent interest in revolutionary politics, is because she’s not beautiful enough is repeatedly reinforced throughout the movie.
There’s a scene where Merry, as a young child, makes a sexual advance towards her own father. This kind of incident does not point towards an unresolved Electra Complex or some sort of truism about women’s jealousy, it points towards the existence of serious abuse. Swede’s pitying treatment of his daughter is reminiscent of Nabokov‘s Pale Fire, where Shade weeps in the men’s room after his unattractive daughter was made to portray an old maid in a school play.
The film is meant as a warning to all that even the beloved captain of the football team and Miss America can fall victim to the evils of liberalism. Lock up your daughters, because leftist lesbian domestic terrorists will brainwash them into blowing up the general store with their leaflets and jazz cigarettes.
Merry isn’t the only female character who’s put into the film’s misogynistic spotlight. Swede’s wife, Dawn (Connelly) is meant to represent the perfect American housewife. The stress and grief of losing Merry causes Dawn to have a mental breakdown where she strips naked in Swede’s factory and parades around in her pageant sash, singing and weeping as she slings leather gloves to the floor. It was a scene ripped from The Valley of the Dolls.
The depiction of her breakdown is essentially a depiction of the Victorian idea of Hysteria, an illness affecting women when their uteri were believed to be roaming around in their bodies like a drifter coming into town from the highway, looking to stir up trouble. To top this unbelievably offensive depiction of mental illness in women off, all of Dawn’s problems in life are resolved once she decides to get a face lift and become sufficiently beautiful again.
Even if you choose to ignore the film’s astoundingly ignorant core message, there are still key problems with its storytelling. Multiple times, scenes loaded with drama and conflict are ended with a fade to black. Even Soap Operas don’t do that! Often times, the writer’s narrative choices were lazy. At one point, Swede makes a connection with one of his daughter’s evil lesbian hippie friends just because he sees her across the street. Swede’s father (Riegert) is a stereotypical Jewish New Yorker who only exists in the film to provide brief moments of comic relief.
The performance of the film’s cast is acceptable, but forgettable. The one actually great aspect of this film is the production design. The sets are filled with rich details. Each location in the film is a perfect representation of not how things actually looked in the late 50’s and early 60’s, but how we imagine they looked. The fact that the production team picked up on Roth’s unrealistic, Normal Rockwell idealist version of the past and ran with it in their sets is impressive. Even so, a turd rolled in glitter is still a turd.
If you voted for Reagan and you don’t mind lazy writing, you could potentially enjoy this film. Otherwise, save your money. There are less expensive ways to be insulted.
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