American Pastoral explores the toll that political tension has on the domestic front of civilization.
The story begins with famous writer, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) attending his 40th high school reunion. He runs into an old friend, Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) and the two begin to discuss the tragic life of Jerry’s older brother “Swede”. Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor) was the blonde haired, blue-eyed Jewish athlete that was adored by the entire community in Newark, New Jersey.
The tragic retelling begins with Swede as he introduces his girlfriend and future wife Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly) to his father. In hopes that the old Jewish business owner would approve of their union, Swede tells Dawn in be steadfast in her approach and she’ll be sure make a good impression. A former beauty queen, Dawn surprises Mr. Levov with her conviction when discussing the potential religious upbringing of the children she and Swede will raise and the compromises that will have to be made. While under much disagreement, Dawn and old man Levov ultimately meet on terms acceptable to both and Dawn is welcomed into the family.
Flash forward a few years and the Levov family now has a daughter named Meredith. They live in a small town called Old Rimrock where Dawn raises cows and Swede works in his father’s quaint glove factory. Meredith, nicknamed Merry has a stutter that causes a lot of grief to herself and her family. However, old man Levov assures Swede that Merry just needs time for her mouth to catch up to her quick brain and that he should disregard any worry.
American Pastoral is drama – in the truest meaning of the word – and drama is not complete without conflict. Throughout the film, there is; conflict of interest, conflict of character, and conflict of ideology. The word used loosely, every character has a substantial conflict. Swede’s is the fight to find his daughter and recover his marriage with Dawn. Merry’s conflict is with her own views and how it will jeopardize her relationship with her family. And Dawn’s conflict is coming to terms with life without Merry and trying to start over.
There is point in the film where another type of conflict is introduced. It is the conflict between mother and daughter and a theme not often explored in film. Merry’s speech therapist presents the idea that Merry’s stuttering is a deliberate attempt to dampen the expectations intrinsically placed on her. Being from a star athlete father and beauty pageant winner mother, Merry feels the pressure of living up to a certain standard. This is presented through her fascination with Audrey Hepburn. A scene that solidifies this for Swede is in an awkward encounter while in his red pickup truck with Merry. After presenting Merry with flowers, asking her to give them to Dawn, Merry asks for a kiss. Swede obliges with a peck on the cheek, but is horrified when Merry demands to be kissed “the way you kiss Mommy.” Swede realises that Merry is in competition with her mother, as theorized by the therapist. Swede also realises that Merry is a lot more mature than she seems. At this point the audience knows that Merry should not be taken lightly as she already shows to have an unconventional understanding of the world around her.
Later, while watching television in the living room, the family is perturbed when footage of an old man in some eastern country is set alight and burns to death. That night Merry comes into her parents’ room crying because of the old man. She asks her parents why the “nice old man” had to die and if people had no conscience. Swede reassures Merry saying that she has a conscience. And indeed she does, the film sets Merry up as a very empathetic character; as well as complex and substantial.
Years on and we see the trio when Merry is 16 – now played by Dakota Fanning. She is in the kitchen making lunch for the family, traditional American homemade hamburgers. On the small table-top television is Lyndon B Johnson’s public address, concerning the war in Vietnam. Merry becomes agitated and begins to curse. When told by Dawn to lower her tone, Merry throws a fit and argues with both her parents. There is no cause to think that her parents support the war but being emotional in this instance, Merry resorts to argument by way of ad hominem and accuses her parents of being complicit in the war. This point in the film is crucial because it presents Merry’s moral alliance, one that was shared among many during this time. What makes it relevant to a modern audience is the fact that it mirrors the now clichéd scenario of a youth, inexperienced in life yet boisterous in their opinions about ethics and the state of the world, flagrant and without regard for those around who may not be so emotionally driven by the same issues. In a way, it is reassuring to know that even back in the 60’s, people would argue like this. Some things seem to never change.
During this point in the film, racial tensions peak. Streets are dangerous with protestors and rioters. Private property is damaged and civilians are under threat of assault by those screaming for peace in foreign territory and unity in domestic affairs. Quite ironic and the film is sure to make note this irony.
Swede and a trusted employee of his, Vicky (Uzo Aduba) remain in their small factory to ensure its safety. Going so far as hanging a sign on the windows proclaiming that the establishment is in favour of blacks. However, this act of solidarity only lands a bullet through the window, nearly hitting Swede. He and Vicky remain huddled on the floor, hiding from the violence outside.
Swede becomes revered for this act of perseverance with his black employees and he gets awarded by the mayor, who honours him by saying he wishes more businesses were like him during these times. Returning home, Swede is greeted by loud music blasting from Merry’s room. She is very condemning of Swede even though his actions were in line with her beliefs and she exclaims that she wishes to do more for the cause. She wants to go to New York, where most of the action is taking place. Swede denies her the option, for fear of her safety, but gives her an alternative. Why not protest locally in Old Rimrock?
While pamphlets and public discussions, marches and petitions may seem civilized and logical to some; Merry interprets her father’s words differently and acts in true revolutionary social justice fashion – Destruction. Merry acquires the parts needed to make a bomb and blows up the building acting as a gas station and post office. Killing an innocent civilian and friend of the Levov’s. The war against war takes no prisoners.
Merry flees for fear of the repercussions of her actions and isn’t seen by her family for years. The rest of the film centres on Swede trying to find Merry, and the attempts of the police to locate the terrorist who attacked the post office. The disintegration of Dawn’s mental health and her relationship with Swede is thoroughly explored. And Swede’s interactions with another revolutionary criminal, Rita Cohen, claiming to be in cahoots with Merry provides ample distress to the plot.
Now let’s discuss Rita Cohen. She is a perfectly detestable character. She dons a faux afro with high leather boots and antagonizes Swede in every way she can. In their first meeting, she acts sincere and intrigued by Swede’s business, yet soon reveals herself to be cunning and manipulative. She convinces Swede to bring some of Merry’s old belongings to a rooftop parking lot, stating that she acts as the middleman for Swede and his daughter. As tension rises between the two, Rita begins to reprimand Swede for his lifestyle choices. Accusing him of being a capitalist using his black employees as tools for his gain and exploiting them sexually, she also makes claims about his and Dawn’s origins as though their upbringing itself warrants intrinsic guilt. Rita also makes false claims about Merry’s upbringing that Swede is quick to dismiss. He rivals all her statements with the facts. The fact that him and his wife both come from humble backgrounds, the fact that they made their fortune and that Swede provides his employees with the best work environment he can, and the fact that Merry grew up raising cows with her mother and writing in a journal to combat her stuttering. Rita makes erroneous blanket statements about Swede based on assumptions she clearly has cemented for herself as truth. Given it is later revealed that Merry doesn’t recognise the name Rita Cohen, it is safe to assume that Rita acts on impulsive and misguided truths she creates for herself. While acting as a figurehead for their revolution, Rita returns in a later interaction where she tries to seduce Swede in an hotel room, and manages to run off with the 100,00 dollars meant to cover the fees to meet Merry. Rita is on the side fighting the evils of the establishment, but she is a character as moral as the dirt wedged underneath the devil’s hooves.
Throughout the film, Dawn and Swede’s marriage degrades. In one scene, Swede and Dawn are outside having a discussion, Dawn’s responses are numbed and distant. She reveals that she has been selling her cows. Probably because they are a reminder of Merry and the life they had before. The dwindling of the cows on their property are symbolic of Dawn’s dwindling hope of ever seeing Merry again. When Dawn embraces her last bull, it is reminiscent of her goodbye to Swede and the romance they shared.
Later in the film, Dawn has a breakdown in the factory where she dances naked save for a pair of white gloves and her beauty pageant sash. While singing loudly and out of tune, she is soon embraced by Swede while he covers her in a blanket. Her psychotic break lands her in an institute where she is to recover.
The breaking point in their marriage arrives when Dawn has regained her composure and makes an effort to let Swede know that she made a mistake marrying him. She wanted to “teach music and be left alone by boys”, but Swede had to come and have her, as she puts it. In an effort to regain some of what she was before her union with Swede, Dawn insists on having a facelift done by a prestigious doctor in Switzerland. Swede complies – on suggestion of Merry’s old therapist – and Dawn returns to normal functioning level. Albeit, a completely different woman who comes to demean Swede’s efforts to recover their daughter and the life they had before. Eventually she has an affair with a family friend, to the knowledge of Swede.
Merry and her actions have led to the destruction of a traditional and functional family, as prophesised by the widowed wife of the post office owner in an earlier part of the film.
Near the end of the film, Swede manages to locate Merry. It has been a few years and she lives in grotesque circumstances in a decrepit building in an abandoned part of town. She has become a Jain and lives in squalor as atonement for her actions; two bombings, killing 4. She refuses to bathe, wear shoes, and has a dirty piece of cloth covering the lower part of her face. Swede in all his attempts fails to persuade Merry to return home. This does him tremendous psychological scarring, coupled with his marriage in ruin and his wife, vain and unfaithful.
Merry’s stuttering has stopped, however, a small stumble on words occurs when Swede tries to make her remember their past life as a family. Swede pulls off the cloth covering Merry’s face, wanting to see her properly as they speak. Her life in poverty, away from her family and a reputation as a revolutionary has left her with perfect speech but a mouthful of rotting teeth. It is a life she is adamant on keeping, so much so that her interactions with Swede are placid and lifeless; devoid of emotion on her part. As though she were a corpse, like a corpse in Vietnam or a corpse on the streets left by the protesting. She was just in her convictions and her beliefs were genuine, but she distanced herself from those around her she deemed too moderate and ended up in the company of radicals. Radicals that, on the first night of their acquaintance, raped her and lead her to a life of instability.
American Pastoral explores the toll that political tension has on the domestic front of civilization. Throughout the film, characters make very self-aware references to the hypocrisy of domestic terrorism as well as the wrong doings of high governing officials. No one in the film condones the actions of the government and their involvement in Vietnam and no one in the film condones the prejudices faced by people of colour. But the actions of the villains; Merry, Rita and all the other radical revolutionaries are all kept true to the source material. Through Swede’s tragic-hero-esque life, the effects of political tension are presented in a way that the average Joe or Janet can empathise with.
This film is based on a book written in 1997; it is relatively modern but the story – set in a world from decades ago – can still very much parallel with situations seen today in America. It may be beneficial for many people to see this film; not only because of the phenomenal acting and captivating plot, but because it can mirror some of what is happening today and perhaps make people critically think. Every generation wants to believe that they live in a time of revolution and revolution never changes. Factions collide and people get hurt. American Pastoral reminds you that the ones who are hurt the most are the families destroyed by ideology. The civilians who face turmoil and trauma because of clashing beliefs. And communities rocked by rattling viperous actors of social change. Every generation wants to believe that they live in a time of revolution but if you create a revolution for the sake of revolution, then it becomes war and war takes no prisoners.