Review: ‘American Pastoral’ Is As Depressing As The Title Suggests

Jacqueline Gualtieri ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Drama is great. It really is. It creates beautiful, heart-wrenching films that are a joy to watch, even if they cause more sadness than joy. But sometimes, when making a drama, one should stop and think, “Am I taking this too far?” It seems that Director Ewan McGregor never bothered to ask himself that question when filming American Pastoral. Or if he did, he just decided to keep going with it.

At the start of the film, we get a framing device provided by an elderly man, thinking back on his best friend’s big brother: A town hero, the captain of the football team, and the man that married Miss New Jersey, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). We find out that this man, Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), has passed away and we are told the story of how he got there.

Ewan McGregor in American Pastoral. Photo Credit: Lionsgate.

When we go back to the fifties, it’s hard not to be struck by the beauty of the world that “Swede” supposedly lived in. His wife is “as pretty as a picture,” but she’s smart and she loves her husband above everything else. His beautiful daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), may have a stutter, but she loves her father very much and has a bright future ahead of her. The family lives on a farm where the grass is almost too green and the sky is almost too blue.

Little by little, we start to see through the cracks. His daughter’s stutter might just be a desperate cry for attention because she’s jealous of her mother. As she grows up, she grows further away from her parents. The world becomes darker. The rose-colored glasses start to become more clear.

It seems at first like the film is a critique on the way that we view the 1950’s- that perhaps we think of the era as bright and nostalgic. But that nostalgia never returns and the focus turns away from the times and more on Seymour as he watches his daughter grow up in the following decade of the 1960’s.

Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, and Dakota Fanning in American Pastoral. Photo Credit: Lionsgate.

At first she seems like just a rebellious daughter. Merry’s a middle class white girl who leans out of the window of her father’s car chanting “Black Power” to African Americans seemingly not wanting her solidarity. It almost seems silly. But then the story takes a step further when Merry decides to do something more “revolutionary” and is forced to leave her family.

There seemed to be plot forming here, which could have been great, if McGregor kept with it. A random girl named Rita Cohen (Valorie Currie) shows up as an intermediary between father and daughter only to turn into a grating character who’s painful to watch. She blames Seymour for Merry’s problems and then tries to seduce him. His debutante wife, who claimed to be more than just a faceless beauty in nearly every scene she’s in, has a mental breakdown, blames Seymour for everything wrong in her life, and then decides to get medicate via a face-lift. Seymour’s best friend lies to him, adding further to his destruction. Merry shows up again, only to tell him just how her life has fallen apart since he last saw her. The plot has completely dissolved.

Ewan McGregor and Uzo Aduba in American Pastoral. Photo Credit: Lionsgate.

The Civil Rights Movement introduces even more drama into Seymour’s life as he has to watch while his company, which employs African Americans, is attacked by protestors on both sides. The African American community looks at him like he’s controlling and hurting his workers. The white community thinks he’s helping African Americans. Either way, his building is bombed and shot at.

Trying to find a glimmer of hope in this film is extremely difficult. Seymour’s work is falling apart, his friendships have disappeared, and his family is in shambles. He has nothing.

If you are expecting something to turn around, you’re going to be disappointed. American Pastoral forgets that if there’s no hope, there’s no emotion. The goal of a drama is to make the audience feel, to connect with “Swede,” to feel for him. However, without trying to invoke anything more than sadness, it’s hard to really feel anything at all.

Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning in American Pastoral. Photo Credit: Lionsgate.

The poor storyline makes the acting regrettably feel forced. All of the conversations feel inorganic and it’s clear that the actors didn’t have much material to work off of. With that being said, McGregor’s Seymour does make you feel bad for him. You don’t quite empathize with him, but you do pity him. He plays his role well. You watch him fall apart right before your eyes. Dakota Fanning’s Merry is the only character in the film that actually got better as she progressed. Merry starts as a slightly annoying rebellious daughter, but grows into something else entirely: she developes this sad strength. She’s the only character that you start to sympathize with.

If you are in the mood to be depressed (or if you want to see Dakota Fanning prove how talented she is), go see American Pastoral. If not, you might want to skip this one.

Overall Grade: C-

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