No movie sets itself in suburban America, these days, unless it’s a "dark" or "sardonic" look at "the underside of the American dream." It’s the most enduring cliche of the past two decades, from Ordinary People through American Beauty, and by now it’s been milked as dry as any other genre. All the more astonishing, then, that a film which mined this territory 33 years ago can still shock the viewer with the force of its despairing vision.
The Swimmer is a phenomenal tightrope-walk of a movie. Its command of emotional suspense, and its portrait of one man’s inexorable slide towards self-immolation, is comparable to The Shining. From the moment Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) enters, there’s a suspecion of something slightly off-kilter about him. He stalks the woods like an animal, running through the trees in just a black swimsuit. When he emerges onto the poolside patio of some friends, they try to engage him in bland banter, and offer him drinks, but his eyes gleam at the sight of their pool. His conversation is stiff, obsessive; he’s focused on swimming, losing himself in idyllic childhood memories which are plainly not shared by his acquaintances.
In the very first scene, the tone quickly shifts from bluff heartiness to tension, as Merrill’s attempts to get others to join him in the pool quickly stop being friendly suggestions, and become wild pleas for even momentary companionship. Determined to swim every pool between their house and his own, he dives beneath the water and he’s off on the bizarre quest that gives the film its episodic structure. Merrill trudges down side roads and through patches of woods, arriving at another pool and another homeowner, and, through their interactions with him, the pieces of this lunatic wanderer’s story begin to come together. He is a man who has cheated on his wife, but who (he says) has patched things up; he’s on his way home to her, and to his daughters. He repeats certain phrases insistently, pounding home that his daughters are "playing tennis," that they "love their father."
Lancaster is terrifying as Merrill. His powerful body, combined with the mechanical, rote way in which he utters social pleasantries, only to return the conversation to his aquatic quest at first opportunity, unnerves the viewer as much as it does the friends who seem to be granting him pool-access the way one indulges a street-crazy–anything to end the encounter and return to normalcy. Lancaster is frightening in this film in a way he’s never been in anything else. As his facade cracks, bit by bit over the course of two hours, there is a gradual realization of just how much is wrong here, and exactly what form that wrongness is taking; it comes like a series of hammer-blows to the gut.
Equally awful, though, is the social scene Merrill crashes through, as he first sprints, then clambers, and finally trudges from one pool to the next. The braying laughter, the omnipresent alcohol, and the sheer glassy-eyed vapidity of the conversations all combine to paint a nightmarishly detailed portrait of a world that could quite easily drive a man insane and force him to seek solace underwater. A brief interlude, during which a well-meaning, and maybe slightly entranced, young woman joins Merrill in his swim-a-thon, sours when the bottomless madness within him becomes clear even to her, and she runs away. Similarly, his attempt to bond with a lonely child, whose pool is empty, turns in an instant from pathos to something twisted and disturbing. Merrill is hovering on the brink of emotional apocalypse, and the viewer feels a lurch of fear every time he sucks some innocent stranger into his whirlpool of despair.
The Swimmer has very few false notes. An angry lecture Merrill receives at the hands of some locals he’s mistreated in the past feels like a scene from another movie, but it’s counterbalanced by a much more powerful interaction between Lancaster and the officious staff of the local public pool. Coming in from the woods, with no money, he’s first reduced to borrowing the entrance-fee from a virtual stranger, and then humiliated for his dirt-encrusted feet. By the time Merrill finally makes it "home," there’s little left to do but sit still and let the movie slowly seep away, without a single fight or gunshot, leaving behind a profoundly disturbing sense of unease.