Humans as a race and as a society tend to view death as terrifying, and things that are dead as ugly, horrifying, disgusting. What most people do not realize, however, is that there is beauty in everything -- if you look close enough.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for the film American Beauty.
This is the message that Ricky Fitts, the outcast son of a homophobic army man, tries to convey to us in the movie American Beauty. Ricky sees beauty in what most of society sees as mundane, ordinary, or even grotesque. He lives his life by beauty, and wishes to convey this message to others.
Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in.
Ricky meets Jane when he moves into the house next door to her. Of course he at first noticed the house: painted completely white, except for the front door, which is red. The roses, to which Jane’s mother gives meticulous care, are also bright red; they are loved as no one else in their family is. But Ricky didn’t care about the roses, or the white house. He noticed Jane. Since Jane is best friends with a girl who is considered by society to be more attractive than she (blond hair, blue eyes, small tits, small stomach, small ass), Ricky is the first (in the film, anyway) to notice Jane. Jane does not understand his infatuation, and when she first speaks to him, the conflict in her is obvious. She is flattered by his attention, but at the same time wary of him because her best friend (as well as society) thinks he is a “freak.”
Jane, he’s a freak. I mean, he didn’t even look at me.
He noticed Jane’s actual beauty instead of Angela’s superficial beauty, and yes, in this society, that makes him a freak. But in a way, we are all freaks. We are freaks for ignoring what is truly beautiful, for being told what to think is beautiful and accepting that as truth, and we are freaks for trying to change ourselves, when true beauty lies within. Ricky knows this, and when Angela tries to claim that Jane is ugly, he attacks her with the statement that I wanted to scream at her throughout the entire movie.
Yes you are (ugly), and you’re boring and totally ordinary, and you know it.
And she is. Because what she is has been carefully planned and thought out to make people believe that she is beautiful, special, and interesting, when in fact she is exactly like everyone else. Jane’s father is in love with her for this reason: she is youth, and to him she is beautiful, and he begins to change his life so that he can have her. But when he has the chance, she admits to being a virgin, and he cannot go through with it. Everything she is is a lie, built on carefully planned false experiences so that she would seem interesting, when she indeed has done nothing of importance. Lester realizes that she is fragile and delicate, and wraps her in a towel and offers her food. He does the right thing.
But he doesn’t realize from the start he is going to react this way. Perhaps if he had known, he wouldn’t have changed. But he had to change. In the beginning of the film, he tells the audience that he has been living in a coma for twenty years, and until he decided to change his life, he was mentally dead. He changed himself, and his life, and even though the rest of that life was short, he made it worth living, and that meant everything to him.
Life is short. This is what Lester wants us to realize. We cannot walk through life expecting things to happen to us, or we will miss life itself. There are so few chances to do the things you want, to see whom you want, to be who you want. Life is short, and beautiful, and we must make it that way for as long as we are alive, and that is what Lester begins to understand as he changes the way he lives.
And then he dies, murdered by the neighbor he spurns. The camera shows us his bloody head as Ricky sees it. Not as a scene from Evil Dead with grotesque rotting flesh and oozing brains spilling everywhere, but as if it were a ballet, slowly panning over the table, where the bright red blood reflects the kitchen light as it pools on the table and slowly drips to the floor. Although parts of his brain are showing, they are not gross-looking, but almost beautiful, as a part of the human body. Ricky is fascinated by this sight, and the fact that he is and that the camera focuses on his specific attraction to the sight, we are almost forced to find it beautiful, as well.
His wife is struck with grief, which is fascinating in itself, as she treated him like an object, one of her many things to show off her perfect life, only a few minutes before, and now she certainly realizes, only too late, what this man actually meant to her. She had been blinded by standards, by what was expected of her from the society she has chosen to be a part of. Instead of rejecting it, the way Jane and Ricky did, or merely being dragged along with the tide, she tried to succeed in it. This caused her to spend every moment putting on a show, because she is not actually a part of that society. She tries so hard to pretend, that she misses everything in her actual life that goes on around her. She is consumed by the standard, and does not know who she is, and has forgotten who she was before she decided to be part of the system.
Lester’s death is a hard blow for her, even though she was contemplating killing him herself. She hugs all of the clothes in his closet, weeping and throwing herself around as if he meant everything to her. We do know that she meant everything to Lester, for in the last moments of his life, she is one of his eternal memories. He again tries to emphasize that life is short, and beautiful.
And it is. Death is as much a part of life as anything else, if not more so, because the only known fact in the life of everything is that it ends, and only too soon. As they say in The X-Files, “Everything dies, Mr. Mulder.” Everything dies, and is thus a part of life, and life is beautiful. We should not see death as a gross abomination of life, but as life itself. There is beauty in everything, even death.