Movie review: Ewan McGregor makes assured directorial debut in American Pastoral

Jennifer Connelly and Ewan McGregor (both above) play a couple whose daughter turns to violence for her political beliefs and disappears in American Pastoral.
Jennifer Connelly and Ewan McGregor (both above) play a couple whose daughter turns to violence for her political beliefs and disappears in American Pastoral.PHOTO: RICHARD FOREMAN

American Pastoral is a sobering look at how children can be brought up in a loving environment and yet become extremists



126 minutes/Opens tomorrow/3.5/5 stars

The story: Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) seem to have the perfect life. But when their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) turns to violence for her political beliefs at the age of 16 and then disappears, their world collapses. Based on the 1997 Philip Roth novel of the same name.

American novelist Philip Roth is having a bit of a moment on the big screen.

Recent adaptations of his works have included erotic comedy The Humbling (2014), starring Al Pacino as an ageing actor whose life gets messy; and drama Indignation (2016), which addresses the role of religion in school and the boundaries of personal liberties.

Things continue to fall apart in American Pastoral. At its heart, it poses a question that, unfortunately, continues to resonate today: How is an extremist made?

Merry comes from a loving, well-to-do family and yet she is drawn to the philosophy of violent revolution in a tumultuous period of American history as anger and frustration erupt over the Vietnam War.

Her parents wrestle with guilt even as they are left bewildered and devastated over her actions.

Chameleonic actor McGregor as the grieving father who refuses to give up on his daughter is the emotional centre of the film. As Dawn, Connelly (Requiem For A Dream, 2000) has the tougher arc to pull off, as she goes from grieving mother to brittle socialite.

McGregor, in his directorial debut, does well to juggle both the family drama as well as the bigger events playing out in the background without resorting to preachiness or a need to tie everything up neatly.

But by sticking to the framing device in the book - Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman attending his high-school reunion and learning about what happened to Swede from his brother Jerry Levov - there is a sense of distance from the events that unfold.

The film recalls a story in The Guardian about mothers in North America and Europe whose children had volunteered to fight for the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - including one who said poignantly that she did not even know what the word "radicalisation" was before finding out that her son was dead.

You can raise children in a loving environment and yet have absolutely no idea how they will turn out.

In other words, American Pastoral is also a horror film for parents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Horror film for parents'. Print Edition | Subscribe