I read “The King of Scotland,” Dwight Garner’s phenomenal piece for Esquire on Ewan McGregor, a few months ago, when hype for the Scottish actor’s directorial debut American Pastoral was just coming to a head. Going off the article, McGregor’s earlier film work, and now his first feature, here is the most cohesive description I can give of the man as an artist:
“Fit, trim, learned, with just the right amount of madness.”
American Pastoral is a taut, lean film – compulsively crafted and surprisingly precise for a directorial debut. The untrained youth and vigor of other 21st century actors’ directorial debuts, such as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, is entirely absent from McGregor’s first outing. This is a remarkably mature film from an inexperienced director. Admittedly, at 45, having spent over half his life acting, McGregor is anything but green when it comes to filmmaking. But for me to get whiffs of Warren Beatty from his first stint in the director’s chair is an incredible achievement. The result is a well-researched, accurate, stylistically consistent period piece that really shows off all the homework McGregor and his team must have done. All of the faults in American Pastoral (and there are several) lay in the shadow of this maturity, and if you glaze your eyes thickly enough with the forest, you’ll easily miss the few rotting limbs on the trees.
Based off the 1997 novel of the same name by Philip Roth, American Pastoral is an ambitious undertaking. For McGregor, a bona-fide Scotsman currently living in L.A, to successfully execute an adaptation of a novel, set in New Jersey during the 1960s and 70s, by the most celebrated American author of the late-20th century, would have required nothing short of a miracle. But what other sort of gall could we expect from the actor known for being all-too-willing to flash his junk on screen? After watching the film, I can safely say, despite some serious stumbles, American Pastoral turned out to be a solid outing.
The first half feels like McGregor attempted to transpose a Douglas Sirk film (see: All That Heaven Allows) – a mawkish, mid-century suburbanite daydream with just the right amount of familial conflict boiling beneath the surface – to a darker, almost David Fincher-type tone. But while Sirk was limited by the strict censors of his time, unable to emphasize the illicit and complex themes of infidelity, sexual misconduct, and classism that lay buried in the subtext of his work, McGregor seems to be confronted by the inverse problem. He’s liberal with showing sexuality, violence, and psychological trauma on-screen, but isn’t very clear about what lies beneath the surface. Having never read Roth’s novel, I cannot speak to how well the film might have translated the work, thereby forced to judge it on its own merit. But I believe I can safely say that the first half of his film is sorely lacking in the sort of thematic subtext included in literature, the kind that might propel the narrative more gracefully into its tumultuous second and third acts.
The only transparent thematic assertion in the opening of American Pastoral is overt, cliche, and a little disappointing – it comes when Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) are meeting with their daughter Merry’s (Dakota Fanning) therapist Dr. Smith. The psychologist (House Of Card’s Molly Parker) goes on and on about Merry’s apparent Electra complex, and the movie immediately jumps into a camping trip with Swede and Merry (age 12 – played by Hannah Nordberg), where Merry essentially attempts to seduce her father. The camping scene is deft, disturbing, and well-acted – and would have honestly worked well enough on its own in establishing the motivations behind Merry’s character. But it’s spoiled by the earlier inclusion of blatant exposition in the therapist’s office. There are hints at other themes; the ills of perfectionism, the false burden of patriarchy, the missteps of fatherhood, etc…etc… but other than some much-appreciated criticisms of the male-dominated nuclear family, these themes are sort of vague and foggy, left floating aimlessly behind the screen.
The scene in the therapist’s office might serve as a paradigm for the faults of American Pastoral. It excels when McGregor allows the audience to connect with the narrative through the strong performances, or simply basks in the absolutely gorgeous imagery on the screen. But when the film bogs itself down with overt thematization, or downright states aloud the premise in voiceover narration, it feels woefully underwhelming. David Strathairn plays Nathan Zuckerman, a friend of Swede’s younger brother, and serves as our secondary source throughout the film. Swede’s brother tells Zuckerman the whole story at their 45-Year High School Reunion, making American Pastoral a frame-tale told by two unreliable narrators. As much as I love Strathairn, and truly believe his performance as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, And Good Luck (2005) is one of the most underappreciated in modern filmmaking, I’m happy to report we don’t see much of him, as the film shies away from his narration after the opening scene. However, whenever Strathairn does interject, particularly at the end of the film, it spoils all of the subtext – his narration is overly literal, dolefully verbose (a feature explained away by Zuckerman reminding us all he’s “the famous writer” *yawn*), and totally unnecessary.
The plot and story could easily have been straight out of an Billy Wilder thriller. The introduction to the main conflict is jarring, perhaps overly so, and seems a little out of the blue, but the film apologizes quickly by offering some contemplative scenes about the nature of the father-daughter relationship between Swede and Merry, how it’s influenced by the tumultuous social revolution of America in the late 1960s, and how the nuclear family and all its promises were upheaved. From then on it’s twists and turns and pensive moments of consideration for McGregor, as he winds through more than 5 years in the lives of the Levovs. The story here is unmistakably told from a white-male perspective, featuring some cringeworthy moments, such as when the Swede is portrayed as a hero for hanging a “Negroes Work Here” sign from his glove factory during the July 1967 Newark riots. But McGregor never attempts to impose his perspective on any of the women or people-of-color in the cast, which might be construed as refreshing or predictable depending on how you swing on that particular issue. And thankfully, by the end of the film, it becomes abundantly clear that the white male cannot save the day, although by this point in the story the revelation comes off as tragic and without the least bit of irony.
The dialogue is cliche and hackneyed at times, but given the setting and time period, this is easily forgiven. The performances are solid all-around; Jennifer Connelly continues to shout at an apparently deaf Hollywood why she’s so shamefully underused. Dakota Fanning passes off a decent stutter, along with some truly poignant moments during confrontations with her father. The supporting cast is seen so little they become almost irrelevant, but Uzo Aduba is given a decent-enough turn as the Swede’s right-hand woman at the factory, although many parts of her characterization are stereotypical at best. As for McGregor himself, well…between doing his best Warren Beatty impression to sounding more like Dean Martin with a cold, his accent is decent. For most of the film, he plays the quiet, reserved, stoic 60s Dad. It makes the dramatic moments all the more so when he gets a chance to flex his muscles.
American Pastoral is not the masterpiece no-one thought it would be. But it’s a remarkably aged and well-composed film, particularly when considering it as a directorial debut. It’s worth watching for the cinematography alone, and for the absolutely impeccable set design. The story is as twisted and Rothian as any David Lynch film, albeit less surreal and nuanced. I can only hope McGregor returns to the director’s chair, and soon, because based on this first effort, The King of Scotland’s reign will indeed by great.