American Beauty

American Beauty Summary and Analysis of Scene 21 ("The Day You Die") through Scene 24 ("Our Marriage is Just for Show")


Once again, the camera zooms over the neighborhood while Lester speaks in voice-over. This time, he reminds the audience of "those posters that say 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life.'" He comments that that's true every day, except for the day that you die. On this morning, Lester leaves his house in running clothes and jogs briskly down the street. He looks much slimmer, and as he sprints down the street he barely breaks a sweat. Back in his kitchen, Lester blends a smoothie and whistles as Jane looks on, glaring at him. Carolyn comes in, telling Jane to hurry up. Jane asks if Angela can sleep over that night, and Carolyn says of course. Lester drinks his breakfast straight from the pitcher. After Carolyn leaves the room, Jane tells Lester that she's been "too embarrassed" by his behavior to have Angela over. Lester laughs and asks what she's talking about. Jane shouts that he stares at Angela and that it's disgusting, and finally Lester yells at her, "You're going to turn into a real bitch, just like your mother!"

Jane leaves the room, and Lester curses at himself. In his room, Ricky brushes his hair. His dad looks in on him, and Ricky tells him that he's going to ride to school with Jane and Carolyn. Ricky walks out of the house, his dad following slowly behind him. As Ricky gets into Carolyn's car, Lester walks out and says hello to him. Failing to notice that Colonel Fitts is watching, he mimes at Ricky to call him. Colonel Fitts then goes upstairs to Ricky's room and begins to search it methodically. He turns on Ricky's camera and sees a tape of his wife sitting at the table, not moving or speaking. He takes out the tape and puts in another: it is the tape Ricky recorded earlier of Lester standing naked at his garage window, doing arm curls. Colonel Fitts takes off his glasses and sits down on the bed, clearly aghast.

Lester is working at the fast-food joint, cheerily flipping burgers. He hears the voices of some customers over the intercom, and realizes that one of them belongs to Carolyn. In the car, Carolyn teases Buddy about how they earned this food with their "work-out." He leans over and kisses her neck just as they pull up to the window, where Lester is standing beside the checkout girl. Lester says brightly, "Smile, you're at Mr. Smiley's!" Carolyn falters, but tries to pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary. Lester, however, comments that he's pretty sure that this time Buddy will remember meeting him. The checkout girl makes a snide comment at Buddy and Carolyn's expense, but when Carolyn responds angrily Lester points out that she's the manager, and that Carolyn is "technically...on her turf." Carolyn, seeing that Lester doesn't appear at all upset, tries to get him to drop the facade and yell at her, but Lester only responds, "you never get to tell me what to do ever again."

Later, still in the car, Carolyn begins to cry. Buddy tells her that they need to stop for a while, because he's already dealing with a problematic divorce. Carolyn agrees, quoting his "philosophy", but when Buddy gets out of the car and drives away, she begins to cry and then to shriek at the top of her lungs. The scene transitions to Lester, who is shirtless, lifting weights in his basement. He looks at his toned and muscular reflection in the window. It is pouring outside. He reaches down for a box, opens it, and takes out an empty plastic bag: he is out of pot. Ricky, at the dinner table, hears his beeper go off. His parents stare at him, but he calmly tells them that he needs to return Jane's geometry book to her.

Angela and Jane are driving through the rain. Angela tries to get Jane to give her all the gory details about her relationship with Ricky, but Jane refuses to tell her anything, and even criticizes Angela for sharing too many of the details of her own sex life. Meanwhile, Colonel Fitts peers outside the window at Ricky and Lester, who are in the garage. Lester has convinced Ricky to stay and smoke with him, but from the Colonel's perspective it appears that Ricky is performing oral sex on Lester. The Colonel watches as the two men quickly separate the second a car pulls up. Angela and Jane get out of the car and rush inside, only to find Lester in the kitchen. Angela provocatively asks Lester if he's been working out. Jane leaves the room in a huff, and Angela approaches Lester and touches his arm. He flirts back, but she instantly disengages, seeming nervous, and goes to find Jane.

In his room, Ricky goes to put the money Lester gave him in a leather bag. Suddenly the Colonel's voice, off screen, asks him where he got it. The Colonel is sitting in a dark corner of the room. Ricky says that the money is from his job, but the Colonel doesn't believe him. Ricky realizes what his dad thinks - that he has been prostituting himself - and starts to laugh, but the Colonel punches him and tells him that he'll throw him out on the street, because he'd rather Ricky were dead than a "fucking faggot." Quietly enraged, Ricky starts baiting his father, telling him that he "sucks dick for money." He taunts the Colonel until the older man threatens to hit him. The Colonel's fist wavers in the air as he tells his son to get out of his house. Ricky is on the edge of tears, as is the Colonel. Ricky turns, picks up his bag, and walks out of the room. He goes downstairs to see his mother standing there, staring into space and holding a plate. He gently tells her that he's leaving. She responds that he should "wear a raincoat." He apologizes to her, then kisses her on the cheek. She nods as if she understands. When he pulls away, she keeps her eyes closed. The Colonel watches from upstairs as Ricky walks away.

Outside somewhere, Carolyn sits in her car in the rain, listening to a self-help tape tell her not to let herself be a victim. Inside Jane's room, the two girls are fighting. Jane screams at Angela not to have sex with her father. Someone knocks at the door. It's Ricky, there to ask Jane if she'll leave with him for New York that very night. She says that she will. Horrified, Angela insists that they can't do that; they're only kids. Ricky tells Jane that he has forty thousand dollars in his bag, and friends in the city. Angela tells Jane not to go with him, and tries to convince her that she can't. Ricky tells Angela that she's not Jane's friend - she just uses her to feel better about herself. Jane shouts that if Ricky's a "freak" then so is she, and that Angela will never understand. Beginning to cry, Angela tells Jane, "at least I'm not ugly," to which Ricky replies that she is ugly...ugly, and boring, and ordinary. Angela walks out of the room and sits down on the stairs, sobbing.

The Colonel walks through the rain towards the garage where Lester is doing pull-ups, his shirt off once again. He sees the Colonel through the window and opens the garage door to let him in. The Colonel enters, dripping wet and clearly distraught, and Lester offers to go get Ricky. He asks if the Colonel is OK, and the Colonel asks him where his wife is. Lester replies that she's probably off having sex with Buddy Kane, but that he doesn't care. Shivering, the Colonel asks him how that's possible. Lester tells him that their marriage is "just for show." The Colonel laughs, then Lester, clearly concerned, gently suggests that they get him out of his wet clothes. The Colonel seems to be crying. Lester tries to comfort him, but then Colonel Fitts suddenly leans in and kisses him. Lester, although shocked, gently pushes him away, telling him that he must have misunderstood. Looking devastated, the Colonel slowly turns and walks back out into the rain. Lester simply stands there. Back in Carolyn's car, Carolyn sits holding up her gun. She turns off the tape, puts the gun in her purse, and repeats to herself, "I refuse to be a victim." She drives off into the night.


At the beginning of this section, Lester reminds the audience that he is going to die, but this time he goes so far as to say that he is going to die today. It is the tension created by the audience's awareness of his impending death (likely a murder) that directs the remainder of the film. Interestingly, however, this reminder does not immediately affect the tone of the film. The section begins on a cheerful note: Lester is very much alive, and far more fit and self-assured. He drinks out of the pitcher (presumably in defiance of Carolyn's orders), and calmly digests the news that Angela will be spending the night without spitting out his smoothie. At the same time, his relationship with Jane remains fraught with tension. His reactions to her are similar to his reactions to his wife, and the sadness and frustration he feels after they fight suggests that he deeply regrets the extent to which their relationship has disintegrated.

Only after Lester finds out about his wife's affair does his imminent death began to seem like a true possibility. Over the next few scenes, potential killers crop up everywhere. Carolyn's unbalanced understanding of substance versus image transforms her guilt about her affair into anger at Lester for having ruined her life. She doesn't seem to believe - on a conscious level, in any case - that she has done anything wrong. Lester is the one who is responsible for humiliating her in public and driving away her prize, Buddy Kane. Colonel Fitts has shown himself to be a violent and unstable man, and when he sees Ricky and Lester engaged in what he believes to be a sexual act, it seems perfectly plausible that he will attempt to kill one or both of them. When he kisses Lester, revealing his own inner torment and repressed homoerotic feelings, the possibility of violence only grows stronger. Even Ricky and Jane's earlier conversation takes on a more ominous tone, as Angela's repeated threats that she will have sex with Jane's father raise the distinct possibility that Ricky will make good on his offer.

The multiplicity of the storylines in the film reaches its peak at this point in the narrative. On the one hand, American Beauty is a film about one man's death, or one man's life. On the other hand, all around Lester people are caught up in tumultuous conflicts and complicated relationships. Lester is no more the sole focus of the film than he is the center of the universe. One of the overall messages of American Beauty is that the world is full of startling revelations if one only strives to look at things more closely.

Nevertheless, at this point in the film the plots all begin to converge on the moment of Lester's death. One of the symbols that bring these disparate plots together is the supposed murder weapon: all three potential killers (Carolyn, Colonel Fitts, and Ricky) have easy access to guns, and at least two of them (Carolyn and Colonel Fitts) are practiced shots. Even Ricky, having spent some time in military school, is presumably comfortable around firearms. This choice of weapon is extremely fitting given the strong symbolic association between guns and America.