22 August 2010

38. American Beauty




This movie does what all good movies must do -- every scene focuses on making us wonder what will happen next. And it mostly accomplishes this by setting things up and paying them off.

It starts from the beginning when we see grainy home video footage (unique for the time) of an almost nude girl talking about how she wants her dad dead. We see the opening credits, then we helicopter in to a typical suburb. The VO introduces us to our hero, Lester Burnham, who informs us that, within a year, he will indeed be dead. Within the first two minutes or so, we're already wondering: did that girl, his daughter, kill him? Did she have him killed by the other voice in her video? Or did something else happen?

Because of this, we're engaged in the story, we're actively participating, we're curious and we will follow.

The first ten minutes or so set up everything -- the first time we see Lester's wife, she's pruning rose bushes. This sets up the movies main color -- red -- and sets up the rose motif, which will play into Lester's journey later in his fantasies about Angela. We see the neighbors, a gay couple, and we see the new neighbors, Ricky and his military father, all of which will be important later. Finally, we see Lester, asleep in the backseat of a car being driven by his wife. This sets up two things: another visual motif -- jails or cages (seatbelt, reflections on Lester's face) -- as well as Lester being metaphorically asleep or dead inside, and his wife being the one controlling the relationship.

In these ways, the first ten minutes of the movie set up so many things that later get paid off. And they get paid off in spectacular fashion throughout. For example:
Lester meets his daughter's friend, and the rose motif continues. The color red remains throughout, with their front door, Lester's sports car, his toy car, and blood on the wall.

The subplot is Wes Bentley's character, Ricky. He comes in right when he should, at 24 minutes in. Another set-up and pay-off -- his dad runs a tight ship, and he talks about how he hates their gay neighbors. Ricky's response speaks volumes. The two main things this sets up: Cooper's latent homosexuality that gets paid off big time in the third act, and Wes Bentley's character, who is the key to the movie in that everyone else is trapped and playing a role, wherein Ricky (when not with his father) is the only person who seems comfortable with who he is, and is the most free. How remarkable that the key to the movie is with an unrepentant weed dealer!

And how remarkable that the midpoint of the movie, the traditional reversal, happens due to masturbation -- masturbation fantasies by a grown man about an underage girl at that! Lester has become sexually unleashed due to his attraction Angela and is acting accordingly. His wife calls him out and he becomes defiant. This is the beginning of him breaking out of his cages and becoming free. In short order, he quits his job, buys a new car, starts working out, breaks a plate at dinner, generally becomes the man he wants to be.

The third act of the movie -- all compressed to one rainy day -- is a mini-masterpiece in keeping the audience wondering what will happen next, mostly through paying off set-ups and creating red herrings that allow us to imagine ANY of the characters killing Lester. The truth is a big payoff and when it is revealed, it incredibly is done only visually and only in a few seconds. At that point, the murder mystery is besides the point, and the only thing we care about is that a character we liked finally broke free, even if for a little bit. That's transcendent.

So even though this film hasn't aged particularly well in terms of its message about the suburbs being a place where men lead lives of quiet desperation (countless TV shows have mined this theme since) and many of the styles of filming and costume have become dated, it is still spectacularly constructed and satisfying from a narrative standpoint, in addition to the great work from the actors, DP, composer, and director.

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