AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Sexual Material, Language and brief Violent Images

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Directed by: Ewan McGregor

Written by: John Romano

(based on the novel AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry, David Strathairn, Uzo Aduba, Peter Riegert & Molly Parker

Despite having a killer trailer, lots of pre-premiere hype and being based on an acclaimed novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL hasn’t been nominated for anything and wasn’t well-received by most critics. This might be because the film differs so much from its source material, but I’d argue that this depressing story cuts a little too close to home for many folks. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a heartbreaking tale that seems frighteningly relevant in our modern divisive times. We’ve seen people willingly abandon friends and family members for differing opinions, all while riots erupt in the streets and hateful rhetoric is spewed on both sides of the political spectrum. After one of the most toxic elections ever and in a currently crazy year, AMERICAN PASTORAL is powerful stuff.

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Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), an aging author, attends his 40th high school reunion. Though he hopes to catch up on old times, Nathan is stoked to meet former friend Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor). However, Nathan is informed that Swede recently died and is then filled in on details of the man’s life. Swede was a guy who had everything ahead of him. He was a local football star and married his beauty queen sweetheart Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), they had a child named Merry, and then Swede’s life went to hell in a handbasket. When teenage Merry (Dakota Fanning) develops a penchant for radical protests and becomes the 60’s equivalent of an SJW, Swede finds his family ripping apart at the seams. This only worsens when a post office is bombed and a missing Merry becomes the prime suspect. As his relationships and life crumble around him, Swede desperately searches to find his vanished child.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut and quite impressive for a first-time feature. The visuals are slick and McGregor captures the sense of this story’s shifting time period. I was whisked away to the 60’s and saw how little has really changed on the political spectrum over the years. That’s one big point that AMERICAN PASTORAL (the film version, anyway) seems to be making, along with many other possible interpretations of the heavy material. Ideas of materialism, perfection, and ideologies over people all have a place in this tragic drama. McGregor handles the material wonderfully on the big screen, though it should be noted that I have not read Roth’s novel and have no way of comparing it to the book.

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Pulling double-duty behind and in front of the camera, McGregor steps into the role of Swede. This all-American guy is a devoted husband and a loving father, though the latter seems to outshine the former in his daily life. McGregor seems to be playing a darker version of his BIG FISH character…but we see this man’s life fall apart and some blame comes back directly onto his shoulders. Jennifer Connelly (who’s mostly hit-or-miss) does an excellent job as a grieving mother and emotionally damaged wife. The scenes of her breaking down feel realistic and tug at viewer’s heartstrings. She just wants her family to be together again, though she also struggles with her daughter from the get-go.

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Dakota Fanning is infuriatingly great as the stuttering SJW daughter Merry. Though she is off-screen for about half of the running time (possibly more), Fanning makes a strong impression on those around her and will likely have viewers frustrated in watching her interactions. Like many real-life SJWs, Merry’s conversations always have to come back to politics/social justice in one way or another. Another notable stand-out is Valorie Curry as a mysterious woman with ties to Merry. Curry’s performance actually had me angrily yelling at my TV screen at one point. She’s that good. Molly Parker is underused as a strange psychiatrist and seems like she should have been a more prominent character. Meanwhile, David Strathairn is phoning it in during his bookend moments, but his final voiceover monologue hits one universal point of the story home.

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PASTORAL encounters a few problems in its pacing and the latter half of the script. This movie is a combination of a tragic-drama and a missing person crime-thriller. It tries to do both of these things and succeeds at the former, while stumbling in the latter. One long conversation scene explains away mysteries and honestly, I feel that a “show me, don’t tell me” style would have worked far better for this story. What works on a page doesn’t always work on the screen. One scene that should have been deeply moving and powerful, instead seems rushed and like an anticlimactic revelation. Other than this disappointing scene and the opening/closing bookends, which serve a purpose and still seem jarring nonetheless, the script pretty much knocks it out of the park.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is a depressing, infuriating, and powerful film that tackles issues of family, relationships, toxic politics, and ideologies that harm more than they help. This movie doesn’t ever fully take sides on a political spectrum and I think that’s an admirable quality. Instead, it seems to hold up a cinematic mirror to the modern divisive state of America and says, “Nothing ever really changed.” AMERICAN PASTORAL is not necessarily a film that will be liked and it was never intended to be that. This emotional tragedy punched me right in the gut and I applaud it for taking on harsh truths. If AMERICAN PASTORAL sounds up your alley, then you’ll probably love this dark drama.

Grade: A-

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