American Beauty (1999)

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Runtime: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Themes: Family, Relationships, American Culture, Beauty, Death
Awards: 5 Oscars (Incl. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay), 3 Golden Globes
Links: IMDb Entry, Rotten Tomatoes

(Please Note: This analysis assumes the reader has already seen the movie and is familiar with the plot. No synopsis is provided. For the best reading experience, it’s recommended to have seen the film recently.)

Introduction

It’s a true sign of a film’s brilliance when both your interpretation and enjoyment of it grow as the years pass and the more times you’ve seen it. It’s hard enough for a movie to hold our full attention through the first viewing. To continue to mesmerize us and make us think upon the fourth, fifth, or even sixth viewings is both a staggering and rare artistic accomplishment.

Public service announcement: American Beauty is my favorite film of all time, and I just watched it again last night after having not seen it in about four years. It was probably my sixth or seventh time seeing it. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I loved it when I was a teenager. I loved it in my twenties. But I had figured that I had already “gotten” it. I knew the themes and the main points. I knew half of the dialogue as if I had said it to somebody myself. What else could there be to glean from it?

Boy, was I wrong.

American Beauty came out when I was 15. I first saw it when I was 16 or 17. I immediately loved it and related to it — as I came from a pretty well-to-do suburban American family that was sweet perfection on the outside, and crunchy dysfunction on the inside. I thought Kevin Spacey was awesome. I related to Ricky for his rebelliousness and quirky spirituality. I saw the narcissism of my own parents in the narcissism of Carolyn. As a frustrated teenager, not unlike Jane, the movie made me feel heard and understood.

In my twenties, I revisited the movie a few more times, still enjoyed it, and picked up on a lot more of its subtleties. The symbolism of the roses. The worship of status and success. The beautiful interpretations of death.

And then last night, I watched it again at age 30. Not only did I have years more of life experience, but also years and years of psychological research and cultural experiences to go along with it. And, to my surprise, the whole experience changed. Despite knowing every line and every scene, I found myself being surprised over and over again. And what had already my favorite movie of all time, somehow got even better.

Thesis

American Beauty is first and foremost a critique of American culture. The story revolves around a “typical” US family and their neighbors in a random US suburb. Each main character represents one facet or “drive” of American culture. The interactions and conflicts between the characters then represent the tensions these drives create within the culture. Narcissism is prevalent in a number of forms. Two main characters (Ricky and later, Jane) choose to “opt out” of the cultural expectations demanded of them by the rest of the characters and by society. The film never resolves whether this act is actually heroic or not.

There is a heavy spiritual tone throughout the film, although this spirituality is never directly addressed. Instead it is consistently hinted at through discussions of death and beauty. The film implies through its tone and dialogue that death is not necessarily a negative occurrence and that there is beauty everywhere, assuming we’re willing to see it. I argue that the film uses its abstract statements about death and beauty to attempt to remedy the narcissistic drives that torment the main characters of the film and American culture at large.

Themes and Symbolism

The film opens up by panning in on a random suburban street in a large American city. The implication is immediately obvious: this could be anywhere in America. This could be any street, any city, any family. Maybe even yours.

The family home is then stereotypical to the point of almost being parody: white picket fence, SUV in the driveway, big red door with rose bushes all around. It’s your typical picturesque American setting. The only thing that’s missing is the dog.

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Roses: The most important symbol in the entire move is the rose. The roses are so important that the whole damn movie is named after them — yes, “American Beauty” is the name of a rose, the same roses Carolyn is pruning in the front lawn.

And these roses are everywhere. They’re all over the front yard (where we’re introduced to them early on). They’re all over the house. They’re in Lester’s fantasies. They’re in the bathroom. They’re all over.

The roses symbolize aspiration — specifically what each character believes to be beauty or perfection. And because each character represents a facet of American culture at large, the roses (again, American Beauty) represent each of the aspirations or drives within American culture.

Plates: Plates also play a surprisingly significant role throughout the movie. Plates represent family or family values. In the opening dinner scene, the Burnham’s have a “perfect” dinner set up — elevator music and all — and yet hardly anyone in the family touches the food (except Carolyn, who seems content with the falsity of the scenario). Everything looks perfect, but no one is actually eating off of the plates. Eventually, Jane and Lester fight and both get up to clean off their plates in the kitchen. They both are trying to clean off the picture-perfect exterior to get at the reality of their family bond underneath, the clean plates.

Later on in the movie, once Lester has changed, quit his job, and Carolyn is frantically screaming at him, he smashes a plate full of asparagus against the wall to finally shut her up. The shattering of this plate signifies the dissolution of the family, as it’s clear him and Carolyn no longer have a relationship.

In the Fitts household, plates play an even more important role. Our first introduction to the Fitts’ is when Ricky comes down to breakfast. His mother is serving bacon but has seemingly forgotten that Ricky is vegetarian — a detail any normal mother would remember. She promptly hands Ricky his plate and he serves himself, signifying that he is entirely self-sufficient and not reliant on his family in any way.

And then, of course, there’s the Nazi plate. Among all of Colonel Frank Fitts’ guns and obscure memorabilia is his “most prized possession,” his official china of the Third Reich. You almost don’t have to even say anything more about the Colonel.

There is then the most sad scene of the Fitts household, the moment when Ricky has decided to leave forever. He comes downstairs with his bag to see his mother, standing alone, holding a plain white plate close to her chest. He stops and for one of the only times in the whole film, he shows some emotion. The symbolism: his mother is alone now, she is her own family — there is no relationship, no connection in the household any longer.

Guns: In every instance which they appear, guns are presented as a solution and not another problem. Jane fantasizes about killing her father. Buddy King takes Carolyn to the gun range to relieve her stress. Carolyn then comes to see her gun as a source of empowerment that she desperately desires and decides to use it to threaten Lester. And of course, Colonel Fitts eventually kills Lester after having his sexual advances rejected.

This is a reflection of the pro-gun culture within the US. It’s therefore not surprising that a) the movie ends with somebody being killed by a gun, and B) the US continues to have a disproportionate gun violence problem compared to the rest of the world.

Breasts: For such a vibrant, interesting, and at times hilarious, film, American Beauty is surprisingly devoid of genuine dialogue. Every character communicates in a false or manipulative way. Carolyn is the worst, of course. Everything she says sounds like an infomercial. But Lester is incapable of taking responsibility for his role in his failing marriage and his failure as a father. Jane is only able to throw back sarcastic sound bytes instead of expressing what she actually feels. Colonel Fitts is dying to have a relationship with his son but simply does not know how to break the drill sergeant mode of communication (in almost every scene he hesitates, stutters, and feels like he’s about to say something to Ricky but then decides the better of it). And of course, Angela is shown later to be a pathological liar and obsessed with her own beauty and popularity.

There are very few “real” interactions between characters. And interestingly, they pretty much all come when somebody has their shirt off. The obvious example is when Angela lies almost naked before Lester, and for the first time in the entire movie, is honest (she’s a virgin, she’s scared).

The other obvious example is Jane. In the beginning of the movie, she is saving up for a boob job (what for, I’ll never know, her tits are huge already). But the boob job symbolizes covering up her true self, and preventing herself from ever being vulnerable to anybody.

It’s therefore significant midway through the movie that she exposes her breasts to Ricky through the window. She’s essentially demonstrating her vulnerability to him — it’s really her, no pretenses. What follows are the most real and genuine scenes of the whole movie, where Ricky and Jane are naked together and talking about life and how much they love each other.

(Interestingly, when Jane asks Ricky if he’s ashamed of feeling naked, he simply looks down at his bare chest and looks at her and says, “I am naked.”)

Character Analysis

American Beauty is primarily a character-driven story. The plot itself is only as interesting as the characters involved. Thankfully, the characters are all extremely interesting. Each character represents a different aspiration in American culture, or a different definition of “beauty.” As the movie progresses, we see how these aspirations play out within the confines of American society. The movie ends with specific implications for each aspiration which will be discussed in the following sections.

Lester Burnham: Lester is a loser. This is clear from the opening scenes and continues, more or less unabated, throughout the entire movie.

Despite that, there’s a natural gravitation towards Lester. He’s a lovable loser. He is the narrator after all. And he has an easy charm to him as a narrator. He is clever and funny and seems nice and harmless. But that’s what’s so devious about him. Whereas Carolyn or the Colonel have obvious flaws one can spot a mile away, Lester’s are masked in meek smiles and self-deprecating one-liners.

In fact, the first few times I watched the movie, I loved Lester. As a younger man, I kind of looked up to him. He was an adult stuck in the 9-5 grind who put it to the man and went his own way on his own terms. There was something admirable in that.

And there is something admirable in that. But I couldn’t see the real Lester, the full Lester until I was much older.

In terms of American culture, Lester represents the avoidance of adulthood and the worship of youth. He’s also a pervert.

Everything Lester does throughout the move is in the same vain attempt to avoid adult responsibilities and regain his youth. This is true both before and after he meets Angela. Before Angela, he sleepwalks through his job, he has a non-existent relationship with his daughter (and when she confronts him about it, he says, “What happened, we used to be pals?” — keyword here is “pals,” not a “father.”) He masturbates frequently — in the shower each morning, at work in the stalls, in bed next to his wife, and god knows where else. He prefers watching movies on TNT to being with his family. He’s essentially a man-child.

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And then when he meets Angela, the beast just gets out of the cage. His inner aspiration for youth goes from repressed and unconscious to fully expressed and conscious. He goes out and buys toys (the remote control car he bumps into Carolyn), starts smoking weed, listens to music he liked when he was a teenager, and buys his teenage dream car. He even goes as far as to take his teenage job of flipping burgers back.

LESTER: “When I was your age, I flipped burgers all summer just to be able to buy an eight track.”
RICKY: “That sucks.”
LESTER: “Actually it was great. All I did was party and get laid.”

Whether it’s working out to look young again, fantasizing about having sex with teenage (read: underage and illegal) girls, smoking pot and listening to classic music to feel young again, or quitting his job and neglecting his kid in order to avoid responsibility, all of Lester’s actions revolve around his aspiration of youth — to be young again, to be fun again, to have no responsibility again, and to fuck young girls again.

This is a key strain in American culture. But what’s interesting is that of all of the aspirations of American culture each character in American Beauty has, Lester’s is given the privilege of being the narrator — to get to tell his side of the story and make you like him.

This is also representative of American culture, as it’s generally the white, middle-class men who aspire to be young and cool and pine for young girls, who dictate the dialogue of American pop culture. These are the people who have a privileged perspective in American society, therefore Lester gets the privilege of us seeing the story through his eyes, which then, of course, makes us biased towards him. But the truth is Lester is a child trapped in a man’s body. And until he meets Angela, he is in denial about that.

And ironically, it’s also Angela who brings Lester into adulthood.

Angela either directly or indirectly inspires all of Lester’s self improvement efforts. He works for what appears to be months to attain the idealization which Angela represents (note that his fantasies of Angela include her covered in American Beauty roses, his kiss with her has him pull a rose petal from his mouth, there are even roses in the background when she finally lays down to be taken by him).

But when Lester does finally attain her, his beautiful angel, his American Beauty, what happens? She’s not the sexy teenage minx he anticipated. Instead, she’s a frightened little girl. And what does Lester do? He covers her, holds her, comforts her, and tells her everything is going to be all right — that she is beautiful and that she’s not ordinary, and that she doesn’t need to have sex with him to prove that.

This is the first moment in the entire movie that Lester actually behaves as an adult: he takes responsibility and puts a child’s needs above his own. It’s not a coincidence that he immediately becomes intensely interested in his own daughter again, asking about her, and smiling silently to himself at Angela’s sarcastic answer.

LESTER: “How is Jane?”
ANGELA: “What do you mean?”
LESTER: “I mean how is her life? Is she happy? Is she miserable? I’d really like to know and she’d die before she’d ever tell me about it.”
ANGELA: “She’s… she’s really happy.” (Rolls her eyes) “She thinks she’s in love.”
LESTER: (Stares into space and then slowly smiles) “Good for her.”

Angela then asks Lester how he is. He tells her that nobody has asked him that in a long time. He then replies with, “Great… I’m great.”

This small exchange is actually important. In American culture, everybody always asks, “How are you?” and everybody is always expected to answer, “Fine,” whether they’re actually fine or not. It’s a simple pleasantry and it’s considered impolite or strange to break that convention. But here Angela asks a genuine question in a moment of intimacy, “How are you?” It actually has meaning. She actually cares. This display of authenticity is so rare in his life (e.g., American culture) that it actually takes Lester aback. He then replies with “Great.” It’s also very genuine. It also breaks with social convention. He gives the non-expected answer, but his answer is actually better. He’s great because he’s finally achieved adulthood. He’s finally become his own man. It took pining after a 16-year-old girl to get there. It took a failed marriage and a daughter who hates him. But he got there. He finally became the adult man he always wanted to be. As Angela retreats to the bathroom, Lester sits looking at a photo of his family, contemplating them under new eyes, looking at them and shaking his head with awe. It was always in front of him and he had never even seen it.

And then… BAM!

(Final note: I’d like to point out that the name ‘Lester’ is part of the word ‘molester’ as in ‘child molester.’)

Carolyn Burnham: Whereas Lester’s character arc is that of self-discovery and the eventual achievement of adulthood and maturity, Carolyn’s is a downward spiral into an abyss of narcissism and childishness.

Our first exposure is to Carolyn working her rose bushes at the crack of dawn. The symbolism is clear: the roses represent the aspiration of the perfect family and Carolyn is the one who puts all of the effort into maintaining their appearance. Lester can hardly be bothered to get out of bed, and the moment Jane first leaves the house, Carolyn’s first words to her are, “Honey, are you trying to look unattractive?”

It’s immediately obvious that Carolyn is all about appearance, appearance, appearance. In fact, the motto (which she gets from Buddy King) is, “in order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.”

This is essentially a recipe for narcissism. And Carolyn is already a raging narcissist so she takes to it like a crack addiction.

As one would expect, Carolyn’s narcissism basically prevents her from having any sort of self-awareness and from also having any genuine connection with people around her. For example, after the dinner fight between her and Lester (where he shatters the plate), she goes up to Jane’s room.

CAROLYN: “I wish you hadn’t witnessed that awful scene tonight. But in a way, I’m glad.”
JANE: “Why? So I could see what freaks you and Dad are?”
CAROLYN: “Me?” (Starts to cry)

This, in a nutshell, is a narcissist. Carolyn originally goes to Jane’s room to ostensibly console her daughter and be a nurturing and reassuring presence. But within two lines of dialogue it’s clear that Carolyn is not there for Jane. Carolyn is there for Carolyn. And as soon as Jane calls her mother a “freak,” Carolyn no longer knows what to say or do.

So Carolyn then goes on to explain how the only person you can ever trust in your entire life is yourself — also a recipe for narcissism. When Jane refuses to take this (shitty) advice, Carolyn slaps her, screaming, “You ungrateful little brat. Just look at everything you have. When I was your age, I lived in a duplex. We didn’t even have our own house.”

This exchange sums up (almost) everything you need to know about Carolyn. The American aspiration she represents is that for material success. Everything in her life is measured through that.

Carolyn is consistently fake throughout the entire movie, like a bad used car ad that never ends. Even when Lester confronts her about their lack of a sex life, she throws out clichéd comebacks about divorce that don’t actually mean anything. All of her interactions with Buddy King, someone she is supposedly intimate with, are fake and feel like they’re being performed (Carolyn is one of two main characters whose breasts are never exposed in the entire movie, indicating that she is never actually vulnerable towards another character).

The only time you could argue Carolyn says something that is genuine and not fake is when she breaks down crying at her failure to sell the house. She is all alone. And she immediately starts slapping herself, screaming, “You big baby! Stop it! Stop it!” She then collects herself and silently walks out.

Going back to her and Buddy King, there’s a subtle moment that I think most people miss and that I missed until the 4th or 5th time I saw the movie. When Buddy and Carolyn are found out by Lester (hilariously) in the Smiley’s Burger drive thru, Carolyn parks the car and Buddy says that they should “cool it for a while.” (His reasoning? “You have an expensive divorce ahead of you,” how considerate.) Carolyn predictably starts crying. Buddy shows indifference. Carolyn then says, “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.” Buddy then looks at her with dismay on his face. It’s as if he can’t believe she actually believes that crap, especially in a moment like this. He then shakes his head (in disbelief? in resignation?) and gets out of the car, never to be seen again.

Carolyn is basically a total mess from then until the end of the movie. She sits in her car playing her self help tapes on repeat in the pouring rain. The self help tapes implore over and over, “You are not a victim, you are not a victim unless you choose to be.” Carolyn, as usual, interprets a generally good message in a way that conforms to her narcissism and decides that, “Lester, I choose not to be a victim.” She then picks up her gun, puts the car in gear, and drives home, ostensibly to put a gun to Lester’s head and make demands or something. Her ability to meet her need for power is hanging on by a thread, and she’s clearly desperate enough to do anything by the end of the movie.

But, the truth is though that Carolyn is, like most narcissists, a coward. In fact, like she said when she was slapping herself, she’s a baby. She’s a child (it’s no surprise then that she married a child in Lester), and when the time actually comes to take the gun into the house, she walks, bawling in the rain, as if in a trance of fear, towards the house without any real purpose or drive.

When she gets inside and sees Lester dead, she runs up to the bedroom to hide the gun. She then looks up to see all of Lester’s shirts hanging in the closet. She falls into the shirts wailing and crying, muffling her cries with Lester’s shirts so that no one may hear weakness.

Jane Burnham: In the beginning of the movie, Lester describes Jane as a “typical teenager.” And for the most part, there’s little reason to think otherwise about Jane. She’s a child who grew up to dysfunctional parents who are children themselves, and she’s therefore angry and has no idea why. So she lashes out through sarcastic comments and passive-aggression.

Jane represents the American aspiration for voyeurism or to live through others vicariously.

Jane is passive. She’s not pretty. She doesn’t have anything particularly noteworthy about her and she stands out in no interesting way. Her parents have no interest in her (Lester doesn’t know how to be a father, and Carolyn is too busy worrying about how things look to be a mother). Jane is therefore caught in the middle of all of the screwed up people around her. And as such, the only way she sees to survive is to live off of people like Angela vicariously.

Hence Jane’s aspirations for a boob job. Hence Jane’s support of Angela’s modeling career. Hence Jane’s interest in all of Angela’s (fake) sexual exploits. Since she can’t be Angela, the next best thing is to be friends with Angela, to watch her, to follow her, and to listen to her.

But like her father’s, Jane’s trajectory changes midway through the movie when she meets Ricky. Ricky sees the beauty in her and helps her see the beauty in herself (more on this in the oh-my-god-it’s-Ricky-Fitts section below). With this new understanding of her own beauty, Jane distances herself from Angela, tells her that she doesn’t need to know about Angela’s sexual exploits, calls out her dad for being a pervert, and stands up to her mother for once.

Jane’s character arc throughout the movie is that of a choice between two fates: 1) to give into the culture of narcissism and participate in it as a spectator, or to 2) go her own direction, set her own standards for (American) beauty, and become her own woman. By the end of the movie, with Ricky’s support, she chooses the latter. And as we can suppose, she’ll eventually pay for that decision.

Angela Hayes: Angela is like the bizarro all-American girl who you wish was an exaggeration, but is actually a little too close to reality for comfort. I feel like every American kid knew at least one girl like Angela growing up. She’s the beautiful blond cheerleader, popular, charming, all of the guys want to be with her, all of the girls want to be like her, and yet she’s a pathological liar and obsessed with spreading rumors about her own sexual exploits around because they make her more popular and desirable.

Like Carolyn, and like Lester (to a lesser degree), Angela is also a narcissist. She is obsessed with her own reputation and how others see her. Angela represents the American aspiration for sexiness and celebrity. And like many Americans, she’s willing to attain it even if it means giving up her own dignity and morals.

Like Carolyn, she is also weak, she is like a child underneath. But the difference with Angela is that she is still a child and therefore still has a lot of time to develop and change. The minute someone finally spots her for what she is (in this case Ricky), she crumbles in front of them into a cascade of tears. She becomes so distraught that she actually considers having sex with Lester — something she had only joked about before for attention — in order to prove everyone wrong, that she is special, that she’s not ordinary.

The scene between her and Lester is so beautifully done. Not only is it the moment that Lester finally accepts his responsibility as an adult and chooses to take care of a child, but it’s also the moment that Angela is finally able to admit that she is a child and she’s scared and she just needs an adult to tell her that everything will be OK, something she’s likely never had before. The two characters meet each other’s needs without actually having to debase themselves through having sex with one another, but rather they do it through a genuine intimacy and expression of vulnerability. Angela lets herself become scared and cries for help. Lester heeds the child’s call and comforts her telling her it’s okay to be scared. This is arguably the first (and only) functional adult-child interaction in the entire movie, and it occurs during a scene of statutory rape. Welcome to American Beauty! Where life is messy and it’s not afraid to show it!

Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps: Laughless, joyless, paranoid, obsessed with structure, discipline and security, Colonel Frank Fitts (“US Marine Corps” as he always feels compelled to add when he meets people) represents the American aspiration for security and order.

Colonel Fitts’ character is extreme. Just as the American desire for security is extreme. But Colonel Fitts’ plight isn’t so different from the other characters in the movie. He loves his son Ricky. If you watch closely, that is clear. But he is scared to death to show it. In almost every scene, Colonel Fitts shows some sort of desire to start a genuine and real conversation with his son, as equals, as men. But he always stops himself. You can almost see he’s in pain for lack of connection.

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The only world Colonel Fitts’ knows is “structure and discipline,” and of course, violence. And even though Ricky follows all of his father’s demands to a tee — perfectly clean room, perfectly dressed for school each day, passing drug tests, saying the right things about political issues — Colonel Fitts can’t help but feel that there’s something missing and continues to be paranoid.

And there is. Ricky is the inverse of every other character in the movie. Everything he says is authentic and real — except when he’s placating his father. There’s even some irony here. At one point, the Colonel says, “Don’t placate me boy. I’m not your mother.” Ricky then just doubles down and placates him further, telling him that he “fucking hates fags.”

Ultimately, the Colonel is caught in a cold, heartless world and doesn’t seem to know why. Like the US, everything that got him this far in life (structure, discipline, the Marine Corps) is now failing him and his family. His wife is practically comatose, and he’s uncomfortable around his son to the point where he’s afraid to even laugh during a TV show with his son in the room. As his son tells him before he walks out, “What a sad, sad, old man you are.”

At the end of the movie, we discover one of the dirty truths about Colonel Fitts: that he’s a closet homosexual. Lost in a moment of confusion due to Ricky’s dissembling, he attempts to kiss Lester, but is rejected. He’s told he’s “got the wrong idea.” Talk about understatement.

The truth is then too much to bear. Realizing that he didn’t just throw his son out because he’s gay, but that his son actually willingly left him and that there’s one person in the world who knows both secrets — that Ricky left because he wanted to, and that Colonel Fitts is gay — he solves the problem the same way his career of military training taught him to: with a gun. Again, the implication is that American culture’s obsession with security also drives us to unnecessarily solve our problems with military violence rather than through other means.

Unfortunately though for the other characters, Colonel Fitts is an expert at killing. And because of this, he is likely to get away with it. But more on that in a minute.

Ricky Fitts: Ricky is, hands down, the most intriguing character in the movie. In fact, he’s one of the most intriguing characters in any movie, in my opinion. He’s been discussed, analyzed, parodied and spoofed (especially his “There’s so much beauty in the world, sometimes I feel like I can’t take it,” line). Everyone remembers him.

So what’s the deal with Ricky?

The first question: Is he believable? Up until this point, all of the characters are believable, if not a little bit too close to home. But Ricky? As Jane says, “He’s like, so confident. That can’t be real.” And what the hell is up with the camera?

Ricky states later in the movie that he basically never feels fear. And there’s nothing in the movie itself to indicate that he does. In fact, his icy stare is both mesmerizing and creepy as hell at the same time.

But if you piece together Ricky’s story, and fill in a few gaps yourself, it is plausible, and his character does make sense.

It’s safe to say that Ricky grew up with an extremely horrible childhood. His mother is basically emotionally non-existent, and his father is both physically and emotionally abusive. Like many children in abusive households, Ricky reacted through rebellion. And this rebellion only brought more wrath and punishment from his father. Then, one day, as he says it, he “snapped” and beat a kid within an inch of his life. He was committed to a mental hospital, and drugged up for two years.

In rare cases, people who suffer extreme traumas or survive extremely violent episodes report a numbness afterwards. Basically, they struggle to ever feel any emotion strongly ever again, particularly fear. It’s almost like their body was shocked so hard that they became desensitized to death.

Ricky seems to have emerged from his traumas with a weird detachment or disassociation. He’s often only partially present with his father, and able to be manipulative at will. He’s able to tell the truth fearlessly (as with Angela) and he’s actively against narcissism in all forms.

Why?

Because he sees beauty everywhere. This is where the movie gets kind of weird for some people. But as someone who has had some ego-dissolution experiences (or what some would call “spiritual experiences”), I absolutely loved Ricky’s moments about beauty. I can relate to them.

Basically Ricky sees beauty everywhere. He sees that beauty is not some permanent thing that exists or doesn’t exist in the world outside us, but rather it’s our perception of something that makes it beautiful.

It’s in this way the video cameras are a perfect metaphor. In buddhist meditation practices, gaining insight into one’s own mind and perceptions is often described as viewing one’s own mind as if it were a movie on a screen, something that could be objectively analyzed and disassociated from. Ricky claims that filming everything is a “cheap way” but necessary to remind himself of how much beauty there is.

Ricky’s views and experiences are very much in line with a number of Buddhist teachings and practices. Ricky essentially practices unattachment from everything (in this case, through recording it), and by doing so, he’s able to appreciate everything equally, as an equal expression of manifestation and therefore beauty.

Part of this beauty also includes death.

Death comes up repeatedly throughout the movie and it’s always in relation to Ricky. When he walks home with Jane, a funeral procession passes by. At one point Jane and Angela walk up to him while he’s filming a dead bird. Angela asks him why he’s filming it and he replies, “Because it’s beautiful.” He claims that he also recorded a homeless woman freezing to death. Again, his justification is that it’s beautiful.

(Why he didn’t save her life, don’t ask me. More on whether Ricky’s a hero or anti-hero below.)

Ricky, as a character, represents a rejection of American culture, and the idea that one should aspire to anything in particular. But instead of being nihilistic, his philosophy is much broader and deeper. It’s zen-like. There’s beauty and value in everything. Lester only sees American Beauty in being young again, avoiding responsibility, and chasing after young girls. Carolyn only sees American Beauty in achievement and materialistic gain. Angela only sees American Beauty in being popular and sexy. Colonel Fitts only sees American Beauty in security and order.

Ricky sees it everywhere. Well, he sees it everywhere except for people who refuse to see it everywhere. But because he sees it everywhere, he does not hesitate to engage in negative or uncomfortable experiences. He has no patience or sympathy for his father. And he destroys Angela’s self-worth in about three sentences. When Lester dies, he looks into his eyes and smiles.

And because he sees beauty everywhere and sees no point to aspire to anything within the confines of American culture or society, he consciously chooses to act outside of the bounds of society. And he does so flagrantly and with, again, no fear.

Ricky is dealing massive amounts of drugs. He does creepy and weird things on a regular basis (like writing Jane’s name in fire on her lawn), and spontaneously decides to run away to New York and take his 16-year-old girlfriend with him. For all of his zen abundance and detachment, there’s still a very immature and self-absorbed kid inside of him.

And this raises the giant conundrum of American Beauty, is Ricky Fitts a hero or anti-hero? (I suppose you could lump Jane and Lester in there as well.)

Heroes or Anti-Heroes

On the one hand, it’s admirable to reject social convention, reject cultural norms, and decide for yourself what is beautiful, what is right and what you want out of life. But in practice, it’s also potentially self-destructive.

Lester’s story, from a purely emotional point of view, is heart-warming. It’s about a middle-aged man who was lost and suddenly starts to find himself.

But he also more or less abandons his family, ignores his daughter, molests a teenage girl, and blows all of his money on frivolous material objects — much like the ones he yells at Carolyn for obsessing over! Hypocrite much?

(It’s telling that the only moment of true intimacy Lester has with Carolyn in the whole movie is when he’s recounting how she was in college.)

Jane’s story can also be interpreted in an inspiring way. You have a depressed, lonely girl with self-image issues who meets a guy who treats her well, thinks she’s beautiful, picks up her self-esteem and helps her make decisions for herself.

But at the same time, Jane alienates her best friend and chooses to run away from home at the age of 16 with her drug-dealing boyfriend (illegal, by the way) without even so much as saying goodbye to her parents. And say what you want about materialism and all of that, but she does live in a nice home. She wasn’t abused (not like Ricky). And she does have all of her immediate needs covered. So she never had it that bad. In a way, Carolyn may be more right than she knows: ungrateful brat.

And then there’s Ricky. The abuse survivor. The zen master. The beauty-is-everywhere romantic. Who also happens to sell tens of thousands of dollars worth of drugs, has no education, lies to his father rather than standing up to him, and convinces an impressionable 16-year-old girlfriend to run away from home with him (also illegal!)

So the message here is actually quite interesting. It can be interpreted in a number of ways. One is that there’s no such thing as a hero, we all have our dark sides and our mistakes, and ironically, that’s what makes us so beautiful. Another is that it’s impossible to grow without getting messy and hurting some people and maybe even hurting ourselves. Another is that to establish your own psychological independence, you must actively act against society in some capacity, which can be dangerous. And another is that we’re all selfish to some extent or another, we’re all just selfish in different ways.

Regardless, American Beauty rocks my world because it recognizes two horrible but beautiful truths about life:

There is no escaping failure and negative experience, ever. We’re all weak and fallible. And we all will always be weak and fallible.
Often the best or only way to grow is through that negative experience or that failure.
Lester’s life changing moment comes when he almost commits a felony on a 16-year-old girl. Angela’s life changing moment comes when Ricky destroys her self esteem and loses her best friend. Jane’s life changing moment came when Ricky semi-stalked her and filmed her without permission.

In every character’s situation, their life is messy and their growth is messy. And it’s not clear if where they’re going is better or worse.

Much like life.

But what we see in all of these characters is that their shirts come off — they become vulnerable in the face of their negative moments and in their life changing experiences. They choose to open themselves rather than to shut themselves and run away. And that is why they grew, even if it wasn’t in a perfect way or even if they didn’t produce the perfect behaviors. And the only two characters who always kept their shirts on: Carolyn and the Colonel, end up only worse than when they began.

Postmortem

The movie ends with Lester being shot in the head. There’s then a narration of Lester discussing how beautiful his life actually was in hindsight, and how grateful he was for all of it (the implication here is that his death is also beautiful). These shots of Lester’s past are interspersed with all of the main characters and where they were during the shooting and what their actions were immediately after. Generally, the reactions are of shock and horror. Ricky looks into Lester’s dead eyes and smiles at the death looking back. Meanwhile, we see that Colonel Fitts was the killer and Carolyn loses her shit (even more so than usual).

So what happens after the movie ends? The movie ends on a surprisingly bright note for such a suburban tragedy. Lester even says, “I guess I could be pretty pissed about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.”

For some, this may seem like a cop-out way to end the movie. But I think it’s done brilliantly.

The point is that Lester has finally become liberated from his singular and narcissistic interpretation of beauty. In death, he’s now able to see beauty in all of life, in all of manifestation, in all of existence.

And it’s this idea that the movie ultimately presents as the antidote to the narcissistic drives of American culture (security, power, youth, sexiness). Stop measuring beauty or success in this one little thing when you can stand back and interpret beauty however you’d like, wherever you’d like. All it takes is a moment. This moment.

Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Denial of Death” wrote that essentially all of man’s obsessions and neuroticisms are reactions to our terror of our own mortality. He then argued that it’s paradoxically the acceptance and comfort with our own death which then liberates us to choose what we value in life.

American Beauty makes the argument that American culture, in particular, reinforces neurotic values in avoidance of death. And that it’s the acceptance of the potential beauty of non-existence that will liberate us in our existence and save us from our own narcissistic tendencies and drives. Because there are no fascist proclivities for security, structure and order if there’s no fear of death. There’s no desire to accumulate as many possessions and as much money as possible if there’s no fear of death. There’s no desire to be young again if there’s no fear of death.

We’re only able to act freely — ostensibly, like Ricky — when we’re willing to give up everything. And we’re only willing to give up everything when we fear the loss of nothing.

Epilogue

The movie leaves hints as to what happens after the credits role. If you finish the movie and immediately start it over, you’ll become aware of something and it will likely make you a little sick to your stomach.

The film ends with Lester being murdered by the Colonel. Nobody sees him. He wears gloves. He wipes the gun off and puts it back in his gun case.

The film begins with Jane on camera asking Ricky to murder her father. When he tells her that’s not a nice thing to do, she sits up, looks directly into the camera, and says in a serious tone of voice, “Do it.”

One can assume that the police would arrive at the scene. They would easily figure out Angela didn’t do it. They would eventually figure out Carolyn didn’t do it — even if they found the gun, it’s unlikely it’s the same make and model, and she’s such a hot mess, they’d likely find her unlikely a suspect. They’d eventually figure out that Ricky and Jane were the only others in the house. Upon searching Ricky’s house, they’d find the correct gun and the tape of Jane asking him to do it. The Colonel would testify that Ricky knew how to pick the lock to his gun case and he had just found out that his son was a gay prostitute and was running away from home. Angela would testify that Ricky and Jane had just verbally abused her and told her of their plans to run away to New York. The Colonel, the only other person with access to the gun that was used, would be a decorated Marine veteran, and likely given any benefit of the doubt.

And so Ricky and Jane would likely be prosecuted and possibly convicted for the death of Lester.

It’s almost like the movie is leaving a hint of a message behind: that those who are able to redefine their own values for themselves, outside the bounds of society, are often punished for it. Those who pursue aspirations of security and order (Colonel Fitts) are usually able to get away with violence. Those who pursue materialism (Carolyn) or glamor (Angela) are left alone to continue their frivolous pursuits.

And the world moves on…