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'The Swimmer' is an unexpected gem from cinema's past

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The Swimmer

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It's a genuine pleasure in this job, when something rolls up and genuinely surprises you. "The Swimmer" is a trippy mindbender out the 60's that extols the costs of a hedonistic lifestyle in the landscape of the suburban wilderness that can break an individual more so then the big bad city ever has.

One summer day in an East Coast upper class neighborhood, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) appears in the backyard of one of his friends and neighbors, who he has not seen in quite some time. Before the neighbors can welcome him, who are seemingly happy to see him, Ned jumps into their swimming pool with much energy and vitality. Ned learns that with the addition of a recent swimming pool in another neighbor's backyard, he can literally swim home moving from swimming pool to swimming pool, his home which is miles away. His friends are baffled by his determination to complete this quest, 'swimming home'. However there are darker forces at play as his journey through suburbia becomes more and more of a nightmare and each stop reveals details on where Ned has been all this time, fueling his desire to 'swim home'.

When a movie that you've never actually heard of before comes along and slaps you upside the head, there is a lot places to go and room to work with. "The Swimmer" is a deft and sly tale of a hedonistic playboy who simply tried to have his cake and eat it too as it drove him completely over the edge and into a pit of ruin.

Based on the short story of the same name by John Cheever from 1964, this is a dark and brooding look at not only the trappings of suburban life but a time when the sexual revolution was shifting and those in a position of affluence and power abused their decadent lifestyles in the confines of their palatial homes just away from the city where everyone worked and where only the perverts and sickos lived. It's a masterful narrative that plays like a fever pitched dream as our hero's failure in life seems so unimaginable and delusional that even his 'friends' and 'neighbours' who knew of his downfall couldn't even bring themselves to believe it at first when they saw him.

While it was a film that was rife with turmoil, it came through exceptionally well. Director Frank Perry didn't make it through the completion of the film due to creative differences and the film was finished by the one and only Sydney Pollack. Considering that it may be one of the best Sydney Pollack films that most people never knew about, it really does have a masterful style to it all, that while choppy from the outside has a real subtle purpose, that doesn't pay off until the end. A stunningly shot film, it plays with the ideals of life outside the city being so perfect and tears at the underbelly of what happens to people and their own human nature when the interact and sleep with one another without any consideration for the consequence. It slams us with beautiful yet simultaneously dizzying imagery all at the same time.

It's a story of how even the mightiest can fall victim to their own hubris and it is anchored by one of the best performances of Lancaster's career in a time frame where he was knocking out some brilliant work at a regular clip. As our Ned Merrill, Lancaster takes us on such an incredible journey as at the beginning he almost feels like a conquering Caesar returning to Rome but as he continues to swim home the chinks in the armor of a very weak and a very flawed character come to light as he gets torn down to his foundation on his way home. The very stylized nature of the film undoubtedly took away from it being truly appreciated at the time as it was a genuinely brave project to take on for someone who was at the heights of his acting and box office powers. Filled with cameos and small roles from the likes of Kim Hunter, Joan Rivers and Diana Muldaur that all highlighted Lancaster's fall with aplomb.

With an amazing 4K restoration, this film on Blu-Ray probably looks and sounds as good as it did the day it was released. Featuring over 2.5 hours of behind the scenes featurettes that go into every single aspect of the film, it is an extensive look back at this cult gem. There's also the original New Yorker short story read by author John Cheever. Liner notes by Stuart Gordon himself, production stills, galleries, trailers and quite a bit more

While it's a story that is still be chipped away at even today, "The Swimmer" is a film that shatters the self perpetuated myth that men can simply do whatever they please regardless of the consequences. In 1968 this was a foreign concept ahead of its time, now 46 years later it's at least the kind of idea that can appreciated for what it is, a genuinely unique piece of storytelling.

4 out of 5 stars.

"The Swimmer" is now available as a BD/DVD combo pack from all major retailers like HMV and amazon.ca.

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