This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Mary Conti’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
**Part of the Best Picture Project**
1967 Special introduction of: Extreme sexuality, the new generation, and Mrs. Robinson's Robinsons.
So instead of boring you folks (and myself) with the regular ol' "Such a classic!" kind of review where I talk about the film's great sense of screenplay structure, Nichol's approach (which rightfully won him Best Director) that allows him to manipulate us visually while letting content decide for us, and how Dustin Hoffman is clearly the best actor of his generation (because he is), I want to approach this film from a different angle.
Has anyone considered that Benjamin is the villain of the film?
And no, I don't mean in recognizing at the famous final scene that the two lovers have made a mistake they're soon going to regret ("Hello, Darkness, my old friend" indeed). Everyone recognizes that. At least, everyone who recognizes the whole point of the film.
It's very odd that a film that was initially viewed as one celebrating the new youthful generation is actually the most condemning of it. Yes, it's definitely a film about the corruption of the older generation on the younger generation, and how the young generation needs to break free, but it does so by depicting its consequences, and not the benefits of breaking free of it.
When we begin our film, Benjamin has not been corrupted yet. He's not the confident player he later becomes, but rather a shy socially inept individual unsure of where he's going in life and worried about it. In comes Mrs. Robinson, a lonely wife who sees a new opportunity to find the sensation of youth in Benjamin. He's half lover, half pet project. She puts up incredible patience for Benjamin's lack of experience out of desperation, but she's a woman who has been through a lot, and she tries best to not show that desperation. She's good at it, for the most part.
So the affair between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson continues for what surely must be a couple months. One night, Benjamin stops intercourse in order to have a normal conversation with Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Robinson, the more experienced one, understands where this leads to, and tries her best to keep the conversation dull. Unfortunately it escalates into a conversation about Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine, which ends with Mrs. Robinson forcing Benjamin to promise that he won't go out with her, to which Benjamin agrees.
And now here's where things get especially interesting.
Benjamin's dad forces Benjamin to ask Elaine out. He has no choice. This obviously pisses off Mrs. Robinson, but Benjamin promises to take her out and bring her right back home and never speak of it again. Should be simple, right? So what does Benjamin do?
He takes her to a seedy club to make her upset so she won't want to go out on a second date, instead of, you know, being honest with her that he's not interested. Which would be the adult thing to do. But Benjamin isn't an adult. He's simply a graduate student.
It's right at this moment where the film makes a switch. Benjamin is no longer our hero. He's a selfish manchild with little to no care for others, and he acts like an asshole for the entire rest of the film. It's a testament to Hoffman's acting that we can both still have some sympathy for him and that this side of him isn't hammed up to infinity, something a lesser actor would have done.
From then on, Benjamin is constantly making selfish decisions in which he concerns himself with his own well being. He keeps taking Elaine out even though he knows how wrong it is. He beats Mrs. Robinson to the punch in telling Elaine about the affair just so he can save face (busting into Elaine's room while she's undressing in the process). He interrupts her life at Berkeley so he can be reunited with her even though she really shouldn't have anything to do with him. He manipulates her into getting back with him, while also being ashamed of her (he hesitates to open the door fully to show her in his room when her scream attracts the dorm's residents), and finally he steals her away from a perfectly fine (yet dull) potential marriage for an uncertain future.
Now I want to be clear about something here, and it's that no party here is essentially clean. Mrs. Robinson starts an affair and then blackmails Benjamin and ruins his image, and the other adults are so hell bent on getting Benjamin to do what they want him to do they have no concern with letting Benjamin get a say (which is why he's so quiet and shy in the beginning) on what he wants for the future. But Benjamin is perhaps the most destructive and selfish character that on a scale of morality he is clearly at the low end.
The great thing about the protagonist/antagonist set up is that in any conflict you can put the characters on either end. We're all the protagonists of our own story, and the only thing that lets us dictate this is pure focus. We experience things through our point of view, and thus we are the protagonist in our own story, regardless of whether our morality is truly functioning or not. Some really great stories are based on the pure idea of this. The next time you watch a film, ask yourself who the antagonist of the film is, and then imagine you're watching things play out from their point of view. It creates such a radically different experience, that you begin to question so much, and leads to plenty of discussion.
The title The Graduate is such a seemingly innocent one at first glace. But when you put the context in place of Benjamin and his character, it's a near tragic title bringing with it a sense of sorrow over the unfortunate change made.
Although Benjamin might be the ultimate villain of the film, there's definitely not a lack of consequence placed upon him that causes him to change. At the beginning of the film, Benjamin is a thinker. The kind of guy who thinks things through before he does them. But throughout the course of his affair with Mrs. Robinson he slowly becomes more and more of a freewheeling person. An important line shows up when Benjamin and Elaine first go out.
I've had this feeling ever since I graduated. This kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time...It's like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don't make any sense to me. They're being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.
There are two things notable about this scene. One ties back to Benjamin being the villain. Benjamin is definitely expressing what feels genuine, but it is mere delusion, as up until Benjamin got into the affair with Mrs. Robinson, he is a polite and considerate young man. The adult generation isn't making this game, he is.
The second is that it also comes in a setting where Benjamin and Elaine are at a drive in diner. They're parked right next to a group of young people who are playing loud music. Benjamin asks that they turn it down, and the other young people don't, being rude as they do it, right after Benjamin's line. So what does Benjamin do? He puts the car's top back on, and shuts the windows, shutting him away from society. This scene is incredibly important to understanding the entire point of the film. When Benjamin escapes with Elaine from the church, he isn't joining the new generation's movement, he's joining his own, and it's a destructive one.
The entire film is built around the idea of Benjamin trying to figure out what to do with his life. Adults are giving him options, but letting him pick for himself, all the while remaining incredibly optimistic about his future (Plastics, indeed). What does Benjamin do? He runs away from their options, and takes Elaine, who was certain about her future until Benjamin deluded her into thinking otherwise, and they go off into an uncertain future.
It's almost remarkable how a film that is this condemning of a young generation ended up being celebrated by it. Of course, one would like to know exactly what would happen to Benjamin and Elaine after they get off the bus, but I have the feeling you can see a sequel of sorts out of this arrangement in Nichol's own Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?