American Pastoral Movie Review
American Pastoral Movie Review Metadata
I didn’t read the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Phillip Roth. I have a book by Phillip Roth I need to finish (it’s just not this one). I know he can be a passionate writer and I’ve been told his stories have feeling and exquisite tension.
Little of that translated to the Ewan McGregor-helmed adaptation of American Pastoral.
There is drama and tension, yes, but it’s a disconnected drama, and things happen for no real reason. You can chalk that up to unreliable narrator, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn, NBC’s The Blacklist). Nathan is in town for his high school reunion, the big 3-5. He’s told of the funeral of high school star, and town hero, Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor, Angels and Demons (2009), The Ghost Writer (2010)). The idyllic life Nathan imagined Swede having is dismantled as Swede’s brother Jerry, (Rupert Evans, The Boy (2016), The Canal (2014)) breaks down the last tragic 30 years.
The bulk of this movie takes place in the turbulent last 60’s, with civil unrest, radical movements and the presidency of Lyndon B Johnson. Merry (Dakota Fanning, The Twilight Saga, Hide and Seek (2005)) is an angry teenager who hates her mother adores her father. All of that frustration is manifested in a crippling stutter. Her family therapist (Molly Parker, HBO’s Deadwood) gives questionable advice but the family dutifully follows. Merry is rebellious and angry and Swede tries to be the encouraging parent. He wants her to have a voice in their strange and scary world. Merry takes it to the extreme and blows up the town’s post office/gas station and disappears into the Underground. Swede will stop at nothing to get his daughter back, no longer how long it takes.
Enter Rita (Valorie Curry, Fox’s The Following) and for the total 7 minutes she’s on screen, we have more uncomfortable mis-direction.
We should understand a father’s search for his daughter. We should understand the breakdown of a mother. We don’t understand the all-consuming downward spiral. We’re not given the opportunity to understand the why.
We are allowed to see the unhealthy attachment of Merry to her father, and we know there’s more there, but not why.
We are allowed to see the manipulation of Merry’s speech therapist, but not why.
We are allowed to see this family do everything exactly wrong when it comes to recovering their daughter, but not why.
There are interesting characters in American Pastoral. The therapist, for example, and her motivations. Merry and her tragic descent into the idealized world of radical revolution. Screenwriter John Romano (American Dreams (2002)) focused on a narrow portion of Swede and Dawn’s (Jennifer Connelly, Winter’s Tale (2014), Requiem For A Dream (2000)) life. There’s a backdrop history thrown in so we don’t forget just how bad thing it was in Newark. I know Phillip Roth is a better writer than that. He relishes deep shifting sands of betrayal and deceit. You don’t write what Time Magazine called one of the Great American Novels and have it look like this adaptation.
American Pastoral lacks everything a historically-based, family centered movie should have – a family we can care about. Swede’s motivations appear creepy and and Rita’s insinuations at the 2/3’s mark have no context. Nothing Dawn does makes sense, not even framed in the new psychiatry of the 1960s.
All of which bring me back to the unreliable narrator in Nathan Zuckerman. American Pastoral is told to us third person and we’re left with embellished scenarios likely filtered through jealousy and unfortunate envy. There wasn’t enough of anything in this movie to confirm.
Also, the last 30 seconds will piss you right the hell off.
I cannot in good faith recommend this movie. It is available on Audible, however, so treat yourself to the Ron Silver-narrated unabridged novel.
American Pastoral is rated R for language, Rita’s inability to keep her hands off herself, and images of bombings and beatings.