Well, the movie begins with Lester telling us (via voiceover) that he'll be dead within the year, so right from the start, American Beauty has death on the brain.
We spend the whole movie waiting for that shoe to drop, and along the way, there are actually quite a few references to death and mortality. Ricky is preoccupied by death, photographing things like dead birds because he sees some kind of meaning in their eyes. Also, he offers to kill Jane's dad for her. So try as we might to forget about death and focus on the family drama, the film makes it basically impossible to forget that a death is coming.
Questions About Mortality and Time
What do you think of the way the movie sets up Lester's murder? We expect someone in Lester's family to be the culprit, but then it's the neighbor. Why do you think the movie plays with our expectations on that front?
Characters like Ricky seem to think looking hard at death—rather than looking away from it—is a way to find meaning. Do you think that's a good point, or do you just find it morbid?
How would the meaning of the movie have changed if Lester hadn't died? Why?
In a movie that's so much about the importance of enjoying life, why is there so much talk about death?
Chew on This
Death is an important theme in American Beauty because it reminds us of how fleeting life is—and to enjoy it while it lasts.
The death theme is important, but the execution is a little weak and uneven—the beginning gives us the sense that the movie is going to turn into one of those Lifetime-style movies in which people decide to murder their relatives.