American Pastoral

Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut is a tough pill to swallow. The Moulin Rouge star has been attached to the blacklisted project for about a decade as directors fell by the waste side. Phillip Roth is a difficult author to adapt under the most educated and talented circumstances. McGregor’s inexperience combined with the dense subject matter doesn’t do him any favors. In a recent interview, McGregor says he didn’t change the script from 2006 because it was perfect. I disagree, and saw many problems John Romano (Nights in Rodanthe) narrative choices. Despite a well-tailored and striking film to look at, American Pastoral’s biggest failure is the lack of emotional connection with the audience, which given the subject matter, should have been a slam dunk.

Seymour (McGregor) and Dawn (Connelly) Levov were the perfect 1960’s American couple until their Merry (Fanning) turned into a violent revolutionary. Following the bombing of a local gas station in rural New Jersey, Merry is accused of the attack upon her disappearance. Convinced their troubled daughter could never carry out such an act of violence, Seymour and Dawn become unraveled, having to answer for Merry’s behavior. For years they search and hang on clues that might lead to her whereabouts. Dawn too becomes so mentally unstable at what their lives have become, she is hospitalized. “You’ve done everything wrong you possibly could,” the FBI tells the fragile Levov family, once the picture perfect family.

fails to tap into the psychology behind the subject matter, leaving us with pretty scenes and good acting that never amount to anything more.

The performance’s by McGregor and Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, The House of Sand and Fog) go a long way in keeping the film moving at least. Somehow with all the sorrow, mystery and emotion on screen, McGregor loses the narrative and the focus as he forces this story to uneventfully coast to its conclusion. Just watching, we can’t understand how a beautiful stuttering young girl could turn into a such a demented, violent and resentful teenager. McGregor does a terrible job at offering any reason or explanation. A father himself, the crux of the film was meant to be the undying love between a parent and child, regardless of the horrendous circumstances, but he can’t muster the nuances and emotion to carry that from page to screen.

There are notes of American Beauty’s drama segments, the disillusion of the American dream in Connelly’s own House of Sand and Fog. In many ways it wants to be one of those films that focus on the aftermath involving parents of modern terrorist like Beautiful Boy (2010). The framing of a story within a story (Strathairn’s character diving into the past) is one of the films many unnecessary elements. It’s true, the idea of a 60’s era female revolutionary terrorist, and working backwards to see what turned them into such a lost person could be a fascinating exploration. But American Pastoral fails to tap into the psychology behind the subject matter, leaving us with pretty scenes and good acting that never amount to anything more.

Final Thought

McGregor’s debut behind the camera is lacking emotion and focus as the subject matter overwhelms the novice.


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