No one quite does domestic dramas like Sam Mendes. Looking at ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’ in close consonance, the tensions, the staging, the set pieces, and the conversations set around them, it is really not difficult to arrive at Mendes’ strong theatre background — the mastery just shows itself quite naturally. Even though by now Mendes’ filmography has grown quite prolific, housing epic war dramas and two blockbuster Bond films, I am going to keep the discussion intentionally centred on ‘Revolutionary Road’ and ‘American Beauty’, two of his most affecting films for me, and later dive deeper into the latter.
The two films are thematically similar in many ways. Both ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’ prove to be effective case studies, and critiques at the same time, of the ever elusive American Middle Class and the domestic struggles hidden behind crumbling marriages, unpaid mortgages, the temporary lure of infidelity, the fear and pressure of children being raised in a rough atmosphere such as this, and to top it all off, the ever elusive American dream: simply trying to make it is perhaps an age long exercise that several patrons undertake, only to wind up at the same spot as Lester Burnham. It’s almost as if the American suburban dream that has for now long been advertised on billboards and outside to-let signs of duplex properties has lost its sheen and been turned on its head, by sheer virtue of the broken individuals inside them.
What’s also interesting is that despite the setting being completely, eerily similar in both films, the nature of domestic and marital struggles, and that of a midlife crisis, a dominant theme in ‘American Beauty’, are of a rather global nature — to be unsure of what to look forward to next is but the most human thing. That is what I think ‘American Beauty’ captures quite beautifully, and if I am to put it in more words, quite heartbreakingly and how Mendes does it while retaining all of these properties in his narrative that make the film experience what it is, is actually the man’s craft; something that I am in complete awe of.
What’s even the more interesting is that this particular period, the turn of the century (and the millennium), had a number of such films release within conspicuously close periods of time, including ‘Magnolia’, ‘Fight Club’ and this one, calling out the false ideal of corporate consumerism, the image of a perfect life, and urging the viewer to look for more, simply more. Of them, I find ‘Fight Club’ to be eerily in the same vein as ‘American Beauty’, albeit without the uber-cool sermonising and ultra-violence. Most people would call me whacked in the head for putting ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American Beauty’ in the same vein, but a closer examination of their themes and not their structure as films would reveal this discussion’s merit. Anyhow, without further ado and after having sufficiently set the stage for a very ripe discussion, let’s dive into what ‘American Beauty’ and particularly its ending meant for you.
The Ending, Explained
I suppose the culmination of the third act begins with Lester’s discovery of Carolyn’s infidelity with her professional lawyer Buddy Kane, to which he acts rather indifferently, and might I add, in an absurdly comical fashion. The two call off the affair, with Buddy citing an expensive divorce and having too much to deal with. She doesn’t return home until late that night. She is later shown driving to her place, reaching for the gun in her glove compartment, and falsely confiding in herself as she repeatedly utters that she refused to be a victim to herself.