TIFF 2016 Review: American Pastoral is a dark and thought-provoking masterpiece.
American Pastoral is the directorial debut of Ewan McGregor. The film takes place in the mid-1960s and focuses on the Levov family from Newark, New Jersey that moves to Old Rimrock, New York. McGregor plays Swede, an upper-middle-class Jewish man who helps run his father’s glove company. His wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) is a former beauty queen that runs her farm in Rimrock. The perfect couple has a daughter named Merry (Dakota Fanning) who despite being incredibly intelligent has a stutter which sets her apart from others her age.
In the height of the Vietnam war, Merry starts to voice her views on the government and the racial prejudice plaguing the country. She travels to New York where she joins a group of radical extremists. This sudden shift in Merry’s personality begins to plague the Levov family. As Swede and Dawn try to get more involved with their daughter, Merry pushes back and continues to seek attention others with similar viewpoints. One afternoon, Swede and Dawn learn about a bombing at their local post office. Frightened that Merry might be behind the bombing, the couple returns home only to discover that Merry has gone missing.
The trailer for American Pastoral peaked by interest, so I was excited to learn that the film was premiering at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. American Pastoral is a well-made film with an interesting premise and solid performances. With a runtime of 126 minutes, the pacing was perfect and never felt drawn out. Throughout the film, I found myself fully engrossed in all the characters and their stories. Even though I see about 300 films per year, it is very rare to see a story about a family told from this perspective. Pastoral works as a bold and dark commentary on the 1960s while also showcasing how one tragic incident can consume and change lives forever.
Ewan McGregor deserves so much credit for stepping in and bringing Philip Roth’s critically acclaimed novel to life. McGregor expertly directs this film while somehow managing to be in almost every scene. McGregor creates a unique and thought-provoking film that is highly engaging and beautifully shot. His character Swede is a man that the audience can stand behind. Swede’s personal struggle with his daughter is grounded in reality. McGregor’s performance is very layered because he is a man that wears many hats. Swede is a father, a husband, a son, and a boss. He has a lot of people that rely and depend on him. I felt like this film accurately represents a man with good intentions that strives to be the best he can be for everyone in his life.
American Pastoral is filled with several complex and complicated characters. Dakota Fanning plays Merry who must change how she plays the character throughout the film. It is almost as if Fanning was required to play several different characters since her character changes so much from the time she is introduced leading up to the film’s conclusion. Merry starts off as a rebellious yet loving teenager. A few months later, Merry becomes part of this underground radical terrorist group and her personality changes. Dakota’s performance proves that Merry has a lot of opinions and her character goes through some pretty severe and tragic situations. Merry is very anti-war and anti-government. Her views vary from her parents, and she is determined to stand up for what she believes in, not matter what it takes.
Jennifer Connelly plays Dawn, Swede’s wife, and Merry’s mother. Even though Connelly held her own for the most part, I did find her character to be the hardest to sympathize with. Dawn doesn’t come off as a woman that focuses on her family but instead is very self-centered. When Merry goes missing, Dawn doesn’t seem all that concerned with finding her. Dawn is the type of person that holds a lot of resentment towards her husband and her daughter. The disappearance of Merry does make Dawn depressed, but it also pushes her to attempt to restart her life over again.
While I did find some of Dawn’s emotional breakdowns to be a bit over the top, she does have a powerful and memorable scene where she yells at Swede about who she has become vs. who she wanted to be. In this scene, Dawn mentions that all she ever wanted to do was to teach music and be left alone, but states that Swede wanted more from her than that. While I found it harder to side with Dawn over Swede, I did appreciate the fact that the script showcased how people respond to things differently. Swede becomes obsessed with searching for Merry while Dawn just wants to feel young again and go back in time to a period where she was happier with her life.
The screenplay written by John Romano is nothing short of spectacular. The film’s script contains so many great lines of dialogue and plenty of noteworthy quotes. All the characters including the minor ones are given a great amount of depth. Every character in the film has at least one moment to shine including Valorie Curry‘s Rita and Uzo Aduba‘s Vicky. While Curry doesn’t have that much screen-time, she serves as one of the film’s standout performances. I loved the scene when she comes to the Swede’s office posing as a student reporter. The hotel scene is also a standout.
Throughout the film, there are so many memorable moments leading up to the film’s simple yet perfect ending. I loved the scene in the beginning of the film where Swede brings Dawn to meet his father Lou (Peter Riegert) for the first time. The back and forth banter between Dawn and Lou about religion felt genuine while also managing to be highly entertaining. There are so many scenes like this one sprinkled throughout the film that I was never bored or uninterested even with some of the heavier subjects that the story tackles in the second and third act.
American Pastoral is a dark and thought-provoking masterpiece. Roth’s source material has a lot to say and McGregor’s adaptation isn’t afraid to say it. It is a remarkable directorial debut from McGregor and one that isn’t afraid to tackle dark subject matters. It is a brave and ambitious look at a seemingly perfect American family that slowly begins to fall apart. The story proves how hard it can be to live in the present when the past continues to haunt you. Great performances, an engaging and well-crafted script, and solid direction all come together to make American Pastoral one of the year’s best films. I cannot wait to watch this film again.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s final rating for American Pastoral is a 9 out of 10.