American Beauty is a 1999 drama film, directed by Sam Mendes, based around the mid-life crisis of 42-year-old advertising executive Lester Burnham after he develops an obsession with his teenage daughter’s friend. The film plays on ideas of the American Dream, the ideals and superficialities of the American middle-class and the subversion of this, culminating in Lester’s death in the final scene when he is shot in the head by a neighbour, a retired army Colonel who has been harbouring internalised homosexual feelings for Lester.
The scene I am analysing begins with a shot of the interior of a car, with the camera placed behind the driver’s seat, overlooking the driver’s shoulder. The windscreen and rear-view mirror are the main focus of the shot and it is made clear to the audience through the reflection in the mirror that the driver of the car is Lester’s wife, Carolyn. The shot is dark, the only light coming from a blue streetlight on the right of the car and the only diegetic sound is that of the heavy rainfall on the windscreen. A non-diegetic soundtrack of low orchestral music begins, almost blending in with that of the rain. The proximity of this shot plus the suffocating quality of the rain gives a feeling of containment and claustrophobia, with the blue light adding an almost supernatural aspect, a sense of something eerie or uneasy, perhaps foreshadowing Lester’s imminent murder. The shot then changes to one from Carolyn’s perspective as she winds her window down. It begins out of focus before slowly focusing to reveal a long shot of their red front door. The non-diegetic soundtrack then changes to the leitmotif used throughout the film, suggesting a connection to Lester and grounding this shot within the narrative of the overall film. The rain obscures everything either side of the door, suggesting Carolyn’s main focus is on it, it’s bright colour also making it stand out starkly against the dark of the surrounding area.
The scene then cuts to one of Angela, Lester’s daughter Jane’s friend. She is sat at the counter of the Burnham’s house having just almost slept with Lester. She is shown in a medium shot, the lighting dim, emphasising the stark white clinical tiles behind her. Hidden in the shadows is a vase of red roses, echoing back to the repeated motif of red rose petals throughout the film, representing Lester’s sexual infatuation with Angela and often shown alongside her. She is wrapped in a blanket which, earlier, the audience see Lester wrap around her and she has a plate of food and a bottle of Coca Cola in front of her, the label visible. These emphasise her youth and innocence as she is being taken care of, a far cry from the self-assured and confident woman she appeared to be at the start of the film. It also shows Lester’s paternal instinct, something which he has been noticeably lacking towards his own daughter. The shot then cuts to one of Lester, matching Angela’s eyeline to show who she is addressing when she speaks. They continue to talk about their near-sexual encounter, with Angela claiming she is still ‘a bit weirded out’. The camera cuts quickly between the two, always staying on the 180 line, but moving to display whoever is talking at the time. Lester asks how his daughter, Jane, is doing – “is she miserable?” – and when the camera returns to Angela for her response the shot is now more zoomed in to a close-up, showing her down to her upper shoulders. This suggests a further intimacy in their conversation as, when the camera returns to Lester a second later, he too is shown in a further close-up. It also places emphasis on the changing of the character’s emotions as we are able to see greater detail in their facial expressions e.g Lester’s fond smile when Angela talks of Jane.
Angela announces she has to go to the bathroom and leaves. Lester is left by himself in the kitchen, still smiling to himself. He repeats his previous words to Angela to himself – “I’m great”. For the first time in the film he appears genuinely content. His eyeline travels out of shot. The shot then cuts to a medium shot of Lester as he walks in the direction of his eyeline. He is viewed in the full environment of his kitchen as he walks to the right of the shot, out of the central light. He picks up an object from the sideboard and the camera then tracks his movement as he moves further into the shot, coming to a stop as he sits at the table. We are then shown via a perspective shot that the object he is looking at is a family photograph of him, Carolyn and Jane. The camera then cuts to face him over the back of the photo – the audience is able to see him as he smiles fondly at it. The use of close up here suggests an interruption of a private moment. The shot then cuts to his left side profile in a close up as he speaks to himself – “man oh man oh man”. The barrel of a gun emerges slowly from the right side of the frame, pointing at the back of his head. The camera then pans around, showing his hands as the lower the image, once again the vase of red roses before coming to rest on the white wall tiles. There is a gunshot and the tiles are spattered with blood. This is reminiscent of earlier in the film when Lester, in a rage, hurls a plate of asparagus at the wall and, again, the stark red of the blood against the white wall is similar to that of the red roses. If these symbolise the freedom Lester finds in his pleasure, this could suggest the freedom he also feels in death.
We are then taken out of the kitchen setting as the shot cuts to a perspective shot, moving slowly down the stairs of the Burnham’s house. The shot then moves to the bottom of the stairs, showing that it is Jane and Ricky. The shot is at a low angle, tilted upwards towards the characters, giving a voyeuristic quality. It then cuts to an out of focus shot – it becomes clear that this is a door when it opens to reveal a pool of blood and Lester’s head on the table. We see the two walk into the room before the camera tracks Ricky’s movement as he walks over to him. The shot then cuts to a close-up of Lester’s head, out of focus, as Ricky moves down into frame. We are then shown what he is looking at as the shot cuts to his perspective of Lester’s head, eyes still open, blood dripping from his forehead. Ricky tilts his head to the side and smiles briefly. The close-up of his face, framed by the unfocused image of Lester’s bloodied head, makes this an uncomfortable scene to watch. The length of the shot used is also notable, along with the frequent return to it. It is considerably different to the fast cutting used in the conversation between Angela and Lester previously. The reason for his smile is also ambiguous – is he happy because he can escape with Jane as he wished or because he sees that Lester has finally reached the freedom he craved?
The shot then returns to the close-up of Lester. It fades out into a shot of a blue but cloudy sky as a non-diegetic narration, voiced by Lester, begins. He states that he once heard ‘your whole life flashes before your eyes when you die’. This sequence echoes the opening sequence of the film, in which Lester runs the audience through his day, but there is a sense of release and freedom, contrasting with the monotonous tone of Lester’s narration at the start. The image of the blue sky also connotes to this idea of freedom – while it correlates with the suburban ideal of middle-class American society which Lester was so bored by, it also suggests the freedom of birds and the idealistic images of a heavenly state, perhaps brought about by death.
In a film where the camera is often used in a voyeuristic way, whether it is through the literally voyeuristic spectatorship of Ricky and his film camera or through the confined and claustrophobic shots, this final sequence seems like a breath of fresh air. The final shot of the film is a mirror image of the start – a bird’s eye shot of the neighbourhood, zooming out and moving away, suggesting the cyclical nature of the so-called ‘American Dream’ and the removal from the monotony Lester felt at the beginning.