Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t so much appear on the screen at the start of ‘The Swimmer’ (1968) as more emerges from some unnamed void. Who the hell is this guy? We know nothing about him so can only go by observation alone — dressed purely in navy trunks, eyes as blue as the sea and a grin so wide it could swallow the whole of creation.
Ned has a clear and fixed plan — to swim home via his neighbours’ pools. This appears to be an act celebrating the “natural” world, to continue and extend the verdant and cerulean ecstasy Ned has just spawned from. So why do we feel slightly sick? Possibly because Ned’s novel idea is legitimately insane but it’s more down to those summer colours of green and blue that already feel infected by some temporally dislodged autumnal decay. Something is not right about either Ned and/or his world.
And so we follow Ned as he swims that blue necklace of a river all the way home and, as he does, we encounter his neighbours who provide us with much needed information about this swimmer. At first they’re cordial, more concerned with nursing hangovers and even slightly in awe of Ned with one woman describing him as a “suburban stud”. Yet, as Ned gets closer to his destination we sense the creeping destruction of this self-made edifice of masculinity.
By the time the end comes… well, let’s not give too much away.
‘The Swimmer’ was based on the short story by John Cheever and its roots in literature are apparent. Indeed, there’s quite a few parallels with Nabokov here with an unreliable, unstable protagonist embedded in a landscape of corrupted Americana (in my opinion, ’The Swimmer’ might actually capture that Nabokovian look and vibe better on film than any of the actual Nabokov adaptations possibly because the cocktails here actually seem to hover like flying saucers).
The themes covered include everything from the dangers of self and collective denial, the emptiness of the suburbs, dehumanising modernity, sexual infidelity, fear of death, loss of childhood, male power, isolation, addiction and how our very identities might be an illusion so when reality finally and fully exerts itself on Ned we get to witness the brutal and catastrophic effect of having all comforting lies annihilated.
This is why we can’t judge Ned too harshly or, if we do, the last laugh could be on us. Ned’s a piece of work to be sure with severe professional, sexual, romantic and domestic issues so a comeuppance is inevitable yet even though we, hopefully, aren’t as bad as Ned we’d be kidding ourselves big time if we didn’t admit that we don’t frequently use those similar mental tactics, those same psychological prosthetics of a little wilful blindness and make believe, just to get through the day.
Didn’t think you ate as much ice-cream as you thought last night? Then why are you avoiding looking in the freezer this morning? Didn’t think you had as much to drink yesterday as you’d care to admit? Then why are you avoiding direct sunlight while I’m talking? Hell, even had a crush only to discover it’s one-sided? We’re all highly skilled creatures of self delusion from scales big and small, serious and frivolous but when we are jolted by “reality” out of our heads the shock is always shattering and sickeningly recognisable. Ned’s biggest problem is that he’s also a rampant narcissist — “I’m a very special human being. Noble. Splendid.” — and with an appetite for excessive experience so when Ned’s delusions finally evaporate it leads to total destruction.
Lancaster is perfect casting as Ned as he embodies so much of the “ideal” of the American male, but Lancaster was also a piece of work in real life so it’s fascinating watching this swaggering, grinning, sexually aggressive male prepared to be so profoundly torn apart on camera.
‘The Swimmer’ is a devastating experience that flips with horrifying ease from dream to nightmare. It also feels extremely modern (it even touches on computer dating) with the central notion of how damaging both personal and societal illusions can be still utterly relevant, although it does show its age and period when it comes to some of the filmmaking choices (no one needs semi-naked, slow-motion frolicking anymore?!).
Still, ‘The Swimmer’ is a unique, idiosyncratic, captivating, unnerving and highly unsettling experience. Just watch out it doesn’t permanently pull you under.