Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968) is a very strange little film, at least on the surface of things. I mean, what’s more strange than a guy swimming home across the county through the backyard pools of his well-to-do neighbors? As with most things, however, The Swimmer is more than it appears to be. Seen as a kind of allegory on the human condition, the film takes on a whole other dimension and flavor. In this way, Burt Lancaster is “everyman” (though it’s not insignificant he’s a wealthy, American suburbanite), a picture of humanity and the journey we all must make, or fake, back to ourselves, toward self- discovery.
Whether or not the protagonist, Ned Merrill, has been institutionalized is not certain, but what is evident at the outset of the film is that he’s been “away” for a time – in “never-never land?” suggests his former lover – as it turns out, away from the truth of himself and his past; away from the deeply societal, psychological, indeed, existential malaise that haunts him.
In denial, alone, afraid, and stripped half-naked, we find Ned throughout the film trying hard to maintain the fragile illusion that all is well on the home front he’s swimming back to. In the face of his many baptisms and encounters along the way, however, the viewers get glimpses of darker truths that fly under the lush visual radar, indicating things are not as he desperately wants them to be.
As Ned gets closer to his house on the hill he gets closer to the excruciating truth of who he is, what he’s done and the reality of his broken world that lies beyond repair. In the end, we discover with him there is no going home. In other words, for most of us at least, life isn’t what we thought or hoped it would be; and it surely isn’t the land of Oz, alas, where, like Dorothy, we can click the heels of our ruby red shoes together, return to Kansas, and go back to the way things were before “life” happened to us.
In my books, The Swimmer is an unheralded masterpiece.