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Laramie Movie Scope: American Pastoral

Drama of the dissolution of an idealized family in '60s

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2016) Attending his 45th high-school reunion, famous author Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), in the role as narrator, comes upon former classmate Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans), a physician and younger brother of Seymour Levov (Ewan McGregor), known as the "Swede" for having been the star athlete (captain of football and baseball teams) of the state of New Jersey before enlisting in the Marines where he became an officer at the tail end of WWII. He reminisces about the past.

A Jew, Swede had fallen in love with a shiksa, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), who'd been Miss New Jersey for 1947, though before marrying her he'd taken her to meet his father Lou Levov (Peter Reigert), founder and owner of Newark Maid Gloves. Regarding the raising of children, Lou refuses to consider any grandchild of his being baptized or going to communion: "My grandson is not going to eat Jesus. I can give you Christmas." Dawn replies: "What about Easter?"

Lou won't have any of it: "Now, both of you, we have to talk about the bar mitzvah." Dawn adamantly argues without conceding other than saying she and Swede don't have to have children. Swede goes to work with his father in the glove-manufacturing business, moves 30 miles outside of Newark in Old Rimrock, rural and Republican, where he and Dawn, liberal and Democratic, raise their daughter Merry and cows.

Jerry says to Nathan that he's back in Newark for his brother's funeral. "I was never more wrong about anyone in my life," says Nathan about "the young man from whom we had expected everything. Our hero." An adaptation of Philip Roth's novel of the dissolution of an idealized family by screenwriter John Romano was directed by Ewan McGregor with original score by Alexandre Desplat.

Jerry describes for Nathan, who had been outside the US during the 1960s, the ordeal Swede had experienced after Merry (Dakota Fanning) at sixteen disappeared following a bomb's destroying the local post office, killing Russ Hamlin. Eight years earlier, Merry (Ocean Nalu James) had been seeing a therapist for her stuttering. Dr Sheila Smith (Molly Parker) attributed the speech impediment to Merry's strategy of coping with having to compete with her beautiful mother for her father's attention within a "highly perfectionist family." On tv, Merry sees a Buddhist monk protesting oppression by self-immolation. Upset, she cries: "Doesn't anybody care?"

As a cynical, antagonistic teenager, disrespectful toward her mother, she rails with vulgarity against LBJ as an "asshole" and a "liar" on tv, along with blaming her parents for being "contented middle-class people." In her bedroom Swede sees anti-war posters and a hateful note directed at society: "We will loot and burn." On weekends she takes the train to New York City to be with her politically-radical friends.

During a riot in Newark - "It's not a riot," Merry avers in support of Black Power: "It's a revolution" - over the death of a black cabdriver, with police and National Guard shooting at suspected snipers, Swede remains in his company's building with his African American secretary Vicky so that his employees (80% black) can continue business the next day unlike other companies.

For this meritorious service to the community, the mayor recognizes Swede with an award and ceremony. He answers Merry's scoffing: "If you take a stand, people notice." The post office explodes.

Acting on an informant's suspicion of Merry's involvement, FBI agents search Swede and Dawn's home. The couple visit with Penny Hamlin (Samantha Mathis) and her young son to express their regrets and sympathies for her husband's death with Swede's willingness to accept all blame of responsibility if Merry actually participated in the bombing. In saying, "The two of you are as much victims of this tragedy as we are," Penny assures his visitors that she and her son will survive but questions whether the Levovs will survive as a family.

Apparently, Merry has disappeared into the underground of domestic terrorists (such as the Weathermen) as a fugitive. A female student Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), ostensibly claiming to be from the Wharton School of Business with an interest of learning about the glove-making business, delivers clues of knowing where Merry may be. She falsely alleges Swede's exploiting his workers financially and sexually.

Following instructions for meeting secretly with Rita in a hotel room, bringing Merry's scrapbook and $10,000 in cash, Swede ignores his brother's urging him to "go to the FBI." Upon entering the hotel room, Swede encounters Rita lying on the bed with her legs spread: "You came here to fuck me."

Dawn, after suffering a nervous breakdown, gets a facelift and engages in an affair with neighbor and architect Bill Orcutt (David Whalen), hired to renovate her home. Finally granted access to his daughter, Swede finds Merry living in squalor, doing penance in hopes of spiritual liberation by practicing self-control and self-abasement, as a devotee of Jainism, among the oldest religions of India, transtheistic in prescribing a path of nonviolence towards all living beings. "If you love me," says Merry, "you'll let me be."

Pastoral is defined as "a work of literature portraying an idealized version of country life" when used as a noun, but as an adjective: "(especially of land or a farm) used for or related to the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle" or "(in the Christian Church) concerning or appropriate to the giving of spiritual guidance."

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2018 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]