Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut (he also stars) comes from source material penned by Philip Roth. As has become custom with adaptations of more high brow author’s works, American Pastoral has been called unfilmable. While the “filmable” quality of a book is a mere talking point, McGregor’s Pastoral suffers at its core from its story of a quiet rural American family turned upside down by the departure of a daughter (Dakota Fanning).
The film’s narrative flies through nearly two decades in a span of 30 minutes. In nearly a blink of an eye McGregor’s factory owner and former beauty pageant winner turned farmer Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) go from being an unmarried couple to raising a 16-year-old rebel daughter with a stutter.
Much is lost in the way of characterization given this expediency, so much so that certain characters turn on a dime later in the movie with little to no discernible explanation.
From this point, the plot moves in a predictable fashion through a father’s struggle to find his daughter that is one part political commentary and one part psychosexual subtext. In terms of the former, the message is meant to feel timely, but it never transcends the depictions of the story’s time period. In terms of the latter, the message is warped, tonally strange, and lacking context.
In the most general sense, American Pastoral is rather bland. From the story to the cinematography to the editing, it all feels rote. And the meditations on a generationally fractured Americana is lost in the drabness of the film’s appearance and pacing.
Even acting performances from the A-list cast cannot keep the film from sliding under its own weight. McGregor may have found himself too encumbered behind the camera to give a powerful leading turn in front of it, really only lighting up on screen in a few disparate moments.
Connelly—surviving in spite of her character’s jarring transformations—and a supporting role from Udo Aduba provide something to hold onto, but the film needed much more traction than that to remain upright.
American Pastoral wades through its murky and disjointed narrative at a snail’s pace, stopping every so often to provide an acting performance of note but never truly providing anything else. There is a drab emptiness to the proceedings that is woefully apparent throughout, and it saps the life out of the film scene to scene.
American Pastoral: D+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)