“American Pastoral,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel by Philip Roth, proves a haunting, engrossing, often eerily timely adaptation. It’s a movie that makes you think and feel — and then think some more.
Star and first-time director Ewan McGregor, working with screenwriter John Romano, has skillfully reshaped Roth’s tale for more urgent cinematic telling, covering a host of profound themes with disquieting power, reflection and grace.
The story is told via a framing device that finds frequent Roth alter ego, author Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), at his 45th high school reunion. In short order, Nathan learns from old friend Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) that Jerry’s older brother, Seymour, once the school’s popular golden-boy athlete, has died.
Flashbacks take us to post-World War II New Jersey where a young Seymour (McGregor), following a stint in the Marines, is working with his warmly blunt father, Lou (Peter Riegert), a thriving Newark glove manufacturer. Seymour — a.k.a. “the Swede,” for his blonde and blue-eyed good looks, uncharacteristic of Jewish men of his generation — is also about to marry “shiksa” and ex-beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly).
All begins idyllically enough for Seymour and Dawn: They move out to bucolic, upscale Old Rimrock, buy a gorgeous country home and raise a daughter, Merry (played at age 8 by Ocean James and at 12 by Hannah Nordberg), a luminous, precocious child with an agonizing stutter and perhaps nascent “daddy issues.”
Seymour also inherits his father’s company after Lou steps down. Notably — and somewhat pivotally — it’s an equal-opportunity workplace with fairly paid, mainly black employees, including indispensable forewoman Vicky (Uzo Aduba).
But as the 1960s wear on and the nation, under then-President Lyndon Johnson, becomes dreadfully embroiled in the Vietnam War, social and racial unrest seizes the headlines, and Seymour’s world — like that of many Americans at the time — begins to shift beneath his feet.
Most strikingly, the now-16-year-old Merry (Dakota Fanning) has morphed into a hostile, anti-war crusader, with little use for the father she once adored and the mother she may have always secretly resented.
At a loss with the unreachable Merry, Seymour misguidedly suggests she stage a war protest in their hometown, never imagining the lengths his daughter will go to follow his advice.
Did Merry, now vanished, plant the bomb in the local post office that killed its proprietor? As Seymour attempts to answer that question and track down his fugitive child, Dawn drifts away from him and faces her own demons.
McGregor, as both an actor and filmmaker, effectively immerses us into the well-deep pain that’s plaguing Seymour and his family — as well as a country that once held so much promise for him. That Seymour is a good, honorable and caring man means little in a world gone mad.
This is especially evident when Seymour encounters the one person who may be able to lead him to Merry, a snarly activist and provocateur named Rita (Valorie Curry), who cruelly exploits Seymour’s anguish.
Although this tragic and compelling story is very much a product of its incendiary era, it’s hard not to connect the dots to America’s current “scorched earth” political climate, one that has proven rife with intractability and a precarious kind of tunnel vision.
“Pastoral” is filled with a string of quietly devastating scenes in which characters speak their truths in ways that cut to the bone and spookily lay the groundwork for events to follow.
Fortunately, the film treads lightly around several potentially melodramatic or overheated moments. However, it should be said that it’s time for filmmakers to retire the Buffalo Springfield tune “For What It’s Worth” as a counterculture anthem.
Under McGregor’s measured hand, the cast, which includes Molly Parker, Mark Hildreth and Samantha Mathis, is tops all around, with special kudos to Riegert for his evocative portrait of the loyal, discerning and enduring Jewish patriarch.
The well-shot and designed film (Pittsburgh subs for New Jersey), which also features strong bits of period archival footage, vividly captures the look and feel of the times. A stirring score by Alexandre Desplat adds much to the film’s enveloping mood.
MPAA rating: R, for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images
Running time: 1 hours, 48 minutes
Playing: In limited release