Only Burt Lancaster would take a role well into his 50s that requires being on camera every second of an entire movie, wearing nothing but a pair of little swimming togs. Only Burt Lancaster could take a role well into his 50s that requires being on camera every second of an entire movie, wearing nothing but a pair of little swimming togs, and not look ridiculous or sad. Or a ridiculously sad combo of both.
Neddy Merrill is middle aged. But Neddy Merrill is played by Burt Lancaster. So Neddy Merrill is the most buffed, impressive, man’s man, middle aged dude you ever did see. While swimming in a friend’s pool, he notices that the expansive valley between his friend’s house and his own is littered with mansions, all belonging to friends, all containing their own pools. So Neddy, full of life while his friends seem more content to drink and smoke, decides to “swim” home, pool hopping and doing a lap in each, while he hikes across the county. Armed with nothing but a pair of little blue swimming togs, and his upbeat attitude.
With each home visited, we get a little more insight into Neddy and where his life’s at. Each home seems to welcome him a little less than the last, each person shows a little more contempt. You start to get the feeling that maybe the rest of the world doesn’t see Neddy the way he sees himself. It also becomes more and more obvious that maybe it’s a bigger problem than just lack a self awareness.
Along the way, Neddy encounters a young woman who admits to a childhood crush. He meets a latchkey kid from a neighbouring estate. He meets a friend’s new chauffeur who might not actually be that new. He meets an ex-mistress who seems blown away by Neddy’s casual reappearance. Each encounter gives Neddy new hope, each encounter also leaves him lower than before it occurred.
The Swimmer is meandering, open ended, obtuse and impossible to pin down. But all of that is what makes it so interesting, so watchable and ultimately, such a great surprise. For some reason, the title and poster art made me think it was some light piece of fluff, maybe a wannabe competitive simmer meets some hotty, wins the big race and lives happily ever after. That is not what I got.
The darkness of story and character, amongst the gorgeous, high class hills, mansions and people, was a real shock, and it made the movie hit harder for it. Lancaster is perfect as Neddy Merrill. In the early scenes, when everything seems so honky dory, you believe he’s the envy of all of his friends, you believe he would be the alpha in any group, you believe he’s earned his slightly cocky attitude. But as The Swimmer progresses, Lancaster also makes you believe his own surface obliviousness to what’s going on around him, while giving little hints of his on deep down awareness and sadness.
This is a different kind of Burt Lancaster, one that I’ve never seen before. Apparently he always claimed to be more proud of The Swimmer than any other performance, and I get it. He might be using a lot of his go to tricks and
character traits, but he gives them a real twist that even if I don’t think this is his best performance, it’s definitely his most surprising.