Movie Review – Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society (1989)
Written by Tom Schulman
Directed by Peter Weir

Dead Poets Society was undoubtedly a box office success and garnered much positive acclaim from critics. In college in the early 2000s, I met several people who loved this movie, especially fellow English majors. You might love this movie. I didn’t watch it for the first time until around 2006, and so this was only my second watch, but…this is such a cheesy ass movie, not in a good or charming way. I was astonished that Weir would direct this, and he was working towards making Green Card when Jeffrey Katzenberg reached out to him about Dead Poets Society. I find the movie to be some of the worst examples of maudlin shallow sentiment and a film that began Robin Williams’ path down, making ridiculous pseudo inspirational tripe.

Based on author Tom Schulman’s experiences at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, the story is about a group of young men attending an incredibly conservative private boarding school in 1959. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) begins his first year at Welton Academy as a high school junior and rooms with Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). Through Neil, Todd meets a group of similarly minded young men, all along some spectrum of dissatisfaction with the regimented, pre-decided worlds their parents built for them. Their lives change when they attend new professor John Keating’s (Williams) English classes. Keating encourages the boys to use poetry to embrace life and discover who they are, which brushes up against the stricter tenets of the school. They find out Keating was a founding member of a now-defunct club, The Dead Poets Society, and revive it. Neil realizes his love of acting and begins to pursue it, knowing eventually that it will clash with his stoic father’s wishes.

Dead Poets Society isn’t a terrible movie; it’s just not a movie whose message has the emotional impact on me the filmmakers intended. In all honesty, I am the target demographic of this picture. I’m a white boy from Tennessee who loved reading and was an English major in college. I should adore it. But I find the messages and their delivery to ring so hollowly. When I look at the world and its problems, I don’t jump to the solution that the sons of rich white people need to live more. I think they live just fine. Maybe a little less would be better. When you really crack open the picture, it’s overflowing with so many Baby Boomer sentiments about not being emotionally fulfilled. Life indeed needs a sense of adventure & wonder, but nothing stops these young men from just taking the money available to them when they are of age and doing whatever they want. Haven’t the cavalcade of political and corporate failsons shown us this? Look at heir Wyatt Koch and his expensive Hawaiian shirt line, for instance. Or the Trump boys or Hunter Biden.

I also wouldn’t say Dead Poets Society is a feel-good movie. It definitely ends on a melancholy note. There’s a suicide, and it’s clearing Keating isn’t going to last long at Welton, so his firing is imminent. It feels like the film is trying to say a lot, and with the large cast of very similar-looking white boys, you can get lost in the story. For being billed as Robin Williams’s movie, he’s not in much of the picture, and it’s hard to say who the “star” of the film is. Sometimes it feels like Ethan Hawke is getting the spotlight, and others, it’s Robert Sean Leonard. Leonard’s role is both the best and worst thing about the movie. His character’s suicide is presented stunningly, one of the best-filmed sequences in the film. But, the reaction to his death is very questionable, and the film frames it as a noble act. I don’t think suicide is inherently wrong, and the context of the situation is crucial. I just don’t see how his suicide was justified in the narrative, and it certainly shouldn’t have been hallowed as the act of a martyr the way the film presents it. And honestly, the film never really says too much about anything, even though it keeps throwing heavy topics at the audience.

This is where the most significant problem is, that third act where after promising so much, the movie fails to give us the essential life lessons it’s been hinting at. The only purpose the suicide serves is so that Keating will get fired, which means we get to have the “standing on the desks” scene, and it rings as emotionally hollow. The boys really didn’t interact enough with Keating throughout the picture for me to understand why they are so deeply devoted to the man. As a teacher myself, I should eat that shit up, but it doesn’t sound to me the way real student-teacher relationships work. I also want to say that this movie was clearly about being gay, right? Neil and his love of theater and his father’s powerfully adverse reaction to it felt very much like the audience was being unsubtly signaled to. 

If you enjoy Dead Poets Society, that’s okay, I guess. The message of the movie is just weird to me. That message is that you know a teacher is great when their students become fanatics that hang on their every word to the point that they would kill themselves. As with most films, audiences don’t think about it; they just remember their vague emotions while watching. It’s like popular music, and listeners disconnect from lyrics so often. This was successful financially; therefore, it kept propelling Weir forward in Hollywood and led him to his next picture, Green Card.


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