Ewan McGregor directs and stars alongside Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning in this acclaimed film adapted from Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor), a once-legendary high school athlete, is a successful businessman married to a former beauty queen, Dawn (Connelly). When Swede and Dawn's daughter (Fanning) disappears after being accused of a violent crime, Swede's perfect life is broken forever and he is left to make sense out of the chaos.
You can't force a masterpiece. Harper Lee and John Steinbeck didn't write their respective novels To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men with the intent of them becoming renowned masterpieces. It just happened that way. Sure, they set out to make great literature, but what authentic writer doesn't have that goal? The result of trying to force greatness is disingenuous content. Ewan McGregor's adaptation of Philip Roth's American Pastoral has all of the ingredients needed to become an American classic, but ultimately leaves a giant gap where our emotional connection should be.
American Pastoral attempts to tell one cohesive story, but becomes so fragmented you have no idea which point it was trying to make.
The movie kicks off in contemporary times. We meet David Strathairn's character Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who has returned to his small hometown for his forty-fifth high school reunion. We know little of his character, including why he made the trip for this visit. He doesn't socialize with anyone but one man. Even though we later learn he's a published author, played on the popular sports teams, and rubbed shoulders with the younger brother of the most popular guy in school, no one seems to know who he is. This is the first element that called my attention to its forced feeling. It's as if the author of the American Pastoral made this should-be-known character a nobody simply so no one would talk to him, thus leaving room for the voice-over inner monologue to flow without interruption and set up the film's glossy introduction.
After several minutes, the purpose becomes clear. Instead of relating his own story, he's telling the tragic tale of the town's student hero and his beauty queen high school sweetheart. We're meant to take it that this is the subject of his next novel and the voice-over bits are interjections from the novel itself, but we never get anything else out of Zuckerman's character. He is simply the voice of the story being told.
The real lead and central character of American Pastoral is Swede Levov, played by director Ewan McGregor. All eyes were on this hometown celebrity following graduation. After marrying the beautiful and proper Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), he took over the very lucrative family business and continued leading the picture perfect life until imperfection entered their lives. Their daughter Mary suffered a harsh stammer, which made her an outsider and may have stemmed from the impossible task of living up to her trophy mother. Also, Mary seemed to steal her father's affection away from her own mother. The incestuous undertones are quite offputting.
This is where the main story starts to kick off.
At first, Mary seems like an innocent child but, as she enters her teenage years, her anger and discontent spread. Mary (Dakota Fanning) remains kind to her father while verbally attacking her mother, but as time progresses, she even becomes hostile to Dad. As the civil rights movement and anti-war protests of the '60s escalate, Mary thrives on her outsider social status and finds refuge in the dangerous and violent activist moments of the time.
This is the theme that American Pastoral takes the long round-about road to telling: what impact did the radical activists of the '60s have on everyday families?
I just don't understand why it's all so indirect -- if this film truly wants to tell the story of an activist girl bringing her family to its knees, why waste so much time setting up offshoot elements that don't directly impact the theme?
As harsh as I am on American Pastoral, adapting heavy novels is no easy task. Most attempts leave fans shouting, "The book was so much better." Considering how much is contained in this dense picture, I imagine the filmmakers did their best to include everything, which is likely the root cause of its jumbled narrative and theme. I also have to give credit where credit is due. American Pastoral is wonderfully shot and well acted -- it's lacking nothing in terms of what you see and hear -- however, without the emotional connection to the audience, all the pretty imagery suffers under an unrelatable and, truthfully, unlikeable story.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
American Pastoral hits Blu-ray with a combo release that includes a Region A BD-50 disc, a DVD, and a code for a Digital HD copy. All arrive in a two-disc blue Elite keepcase that comes with a standard slipcover. The Blu-ray is frontloaded with an FBI warning, a Lionsgate reel, a commentary disclaimer and skippable trailers for Deepwater Horizon, Our Kind of Traitor, Hacksaw Ridge, and Indignation.
American Pastoral boasts a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The quality is so sharp and pristine that it makes the production value immensely higher. The attention to detail that becomes visible with the costuming and set design is fantastic. One scene early-on features a fabric couch that's made out of thick material. The strands and textures are wildly detailed. Expected sharp qualities of faces, hairs and stubble are also constantly present.
The colors that typically come to mind when you think of '60s and '70s cinema – ambers, oranges, etc. – are dominant. The overall vibrancy is natural and tame, but the colors become a little lifeless as the dark story becomes gloomy (the only time I recall them popping with excitement is with a flower bed toward the beginning of the movie).
On a few occasions, contrast is a little wonky. Whites can be a little blinding and overpowering. Black levels are strong, but they can also occasionally result in crushing.
The only other nitpick I have is a glossy sheen that's present in most Disney dramas -- there's a flatness and a glaze to the picture that makes its digital presentation look a little too good. While the film is trying to tell a realistic and intimate tale of an often undiscussed era, the cleanliness removes some of that authenticity.
Bands, noise, artifacts and aliasing are entirely absent.
American Pastoral doesn't seem like the type of film to come with a great audio mix, but this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is exemplary.
Being a dialog-driven drama, you'd expect the vocal mixing to be top notch – which it is – but you wouldn't peg it for having dynamic effects. However, the first time we enter into the Levov family factory, effects start bouncing around the space. Typewriters, sewing machines, and worker chatter light up the room. When the post office explodes, the blast echoes through the channels as debris falls all around. Ringing sirens truly sound as if sirens are passing in the distance, and vehicles pass by with seamless imaging. There's even a few deep LFE rumbles.
In addition to the great vocal and effects mixing, music also comes with strong quality. Some of the '60s and '70s songs sound better than they ever have. The score too plays gently and impactfully while dynamically filling the entire sound space.
Audio Commentary with Ewan McGregor – First-time feature director Ewan McGregor does a great job with this one-man commentary. He offers insights about story and production, occasionally telling interesting or fun anecdotes from the shoot. He talks technology, including how they gave the digitally-shot picture an old-timey look. The only fault is one McGregor himself addresses -- he likes the movie so much that he occasionally gets caught up watching the film and stops talking -- but it doesn't happen too frequently.
American Pastoral: Adapting an American Classic (HD, 28:02) – The first of this disc's great making-of features focuses on the process of bringing the novel to the screen. It took more than 12 years for the adaptation to finally get made. The adaptation process is entirely broken down here.
American Pastoral: Making the American Dream (HD, 17:38) – This second making-of feature is all about the production itself. We learn about the producers, McGregor as a director and actor, and cinematography. We also learn about the color palette and lighting scheme, set dressing, costumes, and story themes and dynamics.
I'm all about heavy dramas and slices of undiscussed Americana. There's much to the country's history that isn't pleasant and, therefore, is rarely talked about or analyzed. While American Pastoral openly confronts one of those events, it feels disingenuous and forced. We know Ewan McGregor has great acting abilities, but American Pastoral shows he's also got what it takes to strongly direct a film. Unfortunately, the story isn't worthy of his abilities. The video and audio qualities are nearly perfect and its three special features are solid, but the mild movie itself doesn't quite make it worthwhile.
If you're curious anyway, give it a rent.