American Beauty

Sweet Release: The Redemption of Carolyn Burnham College

The final glimpse given to the audience of the character Carolyn Burnham in Sam Mendes’ 1999 film, American Beauty, is a point-of-view shot taken from her husband’s perspective on a fast spinning carnival ride. Carolyn is thrilled and bursting with passionate joy; perfectly in focus while the world around the two lovers appears as a dark blur full of unknown terrors that are for that moment completely irrelevant. This is the only sign of true happiness that Carolyn Burnham, played by the great Annette Bening, displays in the entire film, and tragically it’s a flashback to days long past. In present day, Carolyn’s life is completely devoid of such lighthearted pleasure. She is, like most of the film’s characters, trapped in a life of suburban stagnation, where confused and often hollow values contribute to a concealed despair and clouded longing. As Carolyn’s husband, Lester (Kevin Spacey), explains in the film’s opening narration, things weren’t always this way: “She used to be happy. We used to be happy,” he recalls. As the film’s main protagonist, Lester evolves radically throughout the story, completing an entire cycle of the Hero’s Journey: departing from the confines of his known world, overcoming obstacles, transforming,...

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