The parents of the students who attend Welton Academy — “75% of our graduates move on to Ivy League schools!” — are wasting their money. According to Dead Poets Society, the academy’s students are more than happy to sit in for a class and come out knowing nothing new or resourceful about the subject. They’re content to stand on their desks and march around the school courtyard and befriend their eccentric teacher who, surely, forgot to attend his teaching course. He is blissfully unaware that his methods are not standard practice.
The teacher, John Keating (played by Robin Williams as if in a straightjacket), is a master of poetry, but instead of imparting his knowledge to his students, educating them about language and expression, he uses poetry as his manifesto against conformity. Classic poems by Tennyson, Whitman, and Keats are reduced to trivial platitudes, servicing the plot’s unyielding desire to produce takeaway lines that it hopes will inspire all those who hear them to break free and endorse individualism.
John teaches his students how to embrace life, to “seize the day” and make their lives extraordinary. This they heed, and later find themselves chasing love in all the wrong places, going against their parents’ demands, and rebelling against academy law. Tell me, which part of their day was seized?
The students each come from families of high expectation. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), the meek newcomer, has his big brother’s shoes to fill. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) has a family name to uphold, particularly in front of his dad’s pals. And Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is a budding actor whose ambition is laid flat by his father’s oppressive enthusiasm to make him a doctor. There are other classmates in this film, but the story doesn’t fall on them. Instead, they linger in the background to make up the numbers and provide the movie with a small rebellious mob.
No doubt Dead Poets will do it for many people. It is highly rated both on IMDb and Metacritic, and a number of my friends have it thoroughly admired. I think I was just in the wrong frame of mind while watching it. It rubbed me rudely, as if harassing me to see the merit behind its vacancy. Maybe if director Peter Weir had approached the story more subtly, with more feeling and less care, it would have been better. Lengthy segments just seem wasted. Back when John Keating was a student at Welton, he was part of a clandestine club called the Dead Poets Society. They used to hang out in a cave just off campus grounds and discuss Byron, Yates and the like. Now his students do the same, but their own scenes in the cave are awful. They loiter around smoking, mocking poetry and gawking at naked centrefold ladies. And then the movie cuts to the next scene, and they’re not in the cave any longer. Each scene in a movie should aim to progress either the narrative or the characters. If it tells us nothing of value about either, get rid of it. What the cave scenes in Dead Poets tell me is that the students who treasure their poetry teacher do not treasure the poetry he purports to teach.
What do they treasure? Not very much. There is a distracting subplot involving Knox and a girl from another school (Alexandra Powers). She’s the most beautiful girl he has ever seen in all his life, he says. Uh huh. That line got old before it was even a line. Knox shifts into a gear quite disturbing — he chases this girl down with flowers and, of course, poetry. He sneaks into her school and recites lines from his English textbook to her in front of her class. He watches over her at a party while she sleeps, then strokes her hair and kisses her. He takes her to a play and surreptitiously slips his hand into hers. This, to you, might have an air of determined romance about it, but what I have failed to mention is that the girl is in a relationship with someone else, and Knox is desperately trying to fight a fight he shouldn’t win. Clearly he doesn’t treasure integrity and selflessness.
There is another subplot with Neil and his father (Kurtwood Smith), who forbids him from acting and threatens him with military school. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, Neil is staring down the barrel of a gun. Clearly he doesn’t treasure his own life.
And then the movie’s end comes, which plays out like all likeminded movies must, with the firing of the idiosyncratic teacher. Why? I won’t say. But his departure leads to one of the most excruciating closing scenes of any movie. Let’s just say that John’s teaching methods work, up to the point of providing the movie with this closing scene. All 128 minutes of Dead Poets Society are a misdirection, a way of tricking us into seeing John Keating as some kind of motivational linguistic hero. But ask yourself this: Would you rather have John Keating as your teacher, or Dewey Finn?
Best Moment | Watching Robin Williams struggle to contain his onstage persona within the heavily subdued body of John Keating.
Worst Moment | The closing scene, or the “romance” between Knox and his girl Chris.