The Swimmer (1968)

The Death Of The American Dream

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

On a lazy sunny afternoon, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) embarks on an adventure in which he swims through every pool in the county as he makes his way back to his own house. Frank Perry’s The Swimmer is a film which will leave the viewer initially confused with various characters’ actions and the unexpected dramatic shifts in emotion however by the conclusion, Merrill’s swimming pool equivalent of a pub crawl starts to make sense and comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. The opening scene would have you believe Ned Merrill is a pillar of his community, but as the film progresses it turns out this premise is the opposite of reality. Building on one metaphor after another that hints all is not what it seems, The Swimmer is a deep character study on a man whose American Dream became a nightmare, (values which had become disenfranchised by the end of the decade). Much of the acting present from the cast of The Swimmer is reminiscent of a TV soap opera, a possible metaphor for Merrill’s phoney personality? There is a certain degree of enjoyment derived from the film’s idyllic and often naturalistic surroundings (and that corny late-1960s aesthetic) yet when combined with the character’s bizarrely cheery demeanour, the picture creates a very unsettling feeling. The music score by Marvin Hamlisch could be interpreted as a metaphor reflecting Merrill’s personality – grand, dreamy, romantic and pretentious. I do enjoy the 60’s lounge pieces present in the soundtrack, in particular, that titled Lovely Hair, which offers a very relaxing vibe.

The role Ned Merrill is one of Burt Lancaster’s finest acting performances. The film’s acting highlight has to be the scene in which he becomes emotional upon discovering his wife has sold his sentimental hot dog wagon which he played with his kids in. There is something comical about this scene with lines such as “This is my wagon man!” and “I’ll have my lawyers get in touch with you tomorrow”, however with an actor of lesser talent, the scene still wouldn’t retain an undertone of seriousness. Lancaster pulls it off effortlessly and does so wearing only trunks throughout the entire movie, yet still retains his dignity as an actor (likewise, there is also his memorable Charlton Heston-style outburst of “You loved it!”). Ned Merrill is a character filled with so much regret from past experiences that he blindly acts as if nothing has happened and the movie’s portrayal of this is about as extreme and disturbing as it gets while his attempts to defend himself against the scourge of others are just pathetic.

I can recall feeling shaken when I first watched The Swimmer as the film’s conclusion is so tragic beyond words as Merrill returns to a house which has been abandoned for some time and left in a dilapidated state among the melodramatic ambush of wind, rain and thunder. I’ve seen few other movies with an ending as pessimistic, unforgiving and unbearable as that of The Swimmer. No character redemption, just bang in your face, life sucks, deal with it – view before your eyes in horror at a human being who degrades to such a disturbingly pathetic level (it is also worth noting the blurb on the back of the 2003 UK DVD release of The Swimmer actually spoils this incredible ending). The scene earlier in the picture in which Merrill gives a young boy a very poor piece of life advice in which he states “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you”, not only foreshadows the movie’s conclusion but speaks to our modern culture with the dubious concept of having “your truth”. In the age of social media in which many project a life they want others to think they lead as opposed to the life they actually lead, then the ballad of Ned Merrill should act as a cautionary tale (I can only imagine what Merrill’s Facebook or Twitter profiles would be like). To quote that cheesy tagline used in the film’s marketing, “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?”.

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