, 119 min, 2008
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Justin Haythe (screenplay), Richard Yates (novel)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Christopher Fitzgerald
Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, the theater veteran’s latest plunge below the surface of suburban ennui, is a cool, austere portrait of the lives many led in America during the 1950s.
He sees her across the room at a dimly-lit party. She is smiling and talking to someone, and he can’t take his eyes off of her. He crosses the room, they begin to flirt a little, he makes her laugh. He is Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio), and she is April (Kate Winslet). She shoulda known from the moment she asked him what he does and he responded with his “job” – not his “passion.”
It is that very conflict between passion and necessity, between love and happiness that is at the very core of this story. When they meet, he is adrift, working odd jobs here and there, lacking a vocation. She is an “acting student” and a poor performance after a play leads to their first big screaming argument (one of several). He is the “realist,” willing to do what is needed to survive, and she is the “dreamer” willing to pick up and move on the slightest whim – simply because of a “hunger” for more. Soon, they’ve settled into a comfortable married existence: the right house, the right car, a nice lawn, two kids, with her staying home to be a “housewife” (a role she feels almost conned into) and he heading off to be a drone, scarcely noticeable in the sea of men in hats and suits that make an exodus into the city to work in “business” (this will be familiar to viewers of TV’s Mad Men).
After a time, Frank’s business, following after his father, is working in “office machines.” At home, there are a couple of neighbors, Milly (Kathryn Hahn) and Shep Campbell (David Harbour), seemingly happy, but with unspoken problems of their own; Shep harbours an unrequited attraction to April, and Milly is all smiles, sometimes crying with seemingly no provocation. Rather than attempt to further their own humiliations by living this lie, April gets the brilliant notion one day that perhaps they could move to Paris and she could support him while he figures out what he “wants to do.” Could happiness be on the horizon, after all? Or is the road to hell paved with suburbs?
Then there’s the real estate lady, Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates), who invites herself over for lunch with her husand (Richard Easton) and their son John (Michael Shannon), who has just been released from a stay in a psychiatric hospital – one fraught, we gather, with electro-shock treatments. It is the entrance of John into the Wheelers’ matrix that exposes their suburban facade for what it truly is: a cover-up passing for conformity, a not-so-glossy surface under which seething resentments are coming to a boil. Through a shocking lack of tactfulness, a keen perceptive eye, and not without a scintilla of sardonic, vicious and merciless humor (indeed, the film’s only traces), John manages to obliterate any semblance of normalcy and happiness that appears to surround the Wheelers’ lives.
In a second visit to the Wheelers’ home, again for lunch, John finally breaks through the surface of the Wheelers’ demeanor and goes for the jugular, revealing the depression and anger that bubbles within, leaving them verbally and emotionally eviscerated; he’s like a one-man version of the couple from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Sam Mendes is a British stage director (married to Winslet) who has gradually become quite a filmmaker. After two previous efforts (Jarhead, Road to Perdition) seemingly designed to stretch his muscles as a director of more than just character and dialogue driven melodrama, Mendes is back in his true wheelhouse with his first foray into the picket-fenced breach since his directorial debut American Beauty (1999). That film, written by Alan Ball, had a sly, biting satirical edge that is all but completely lacking here.
This film, adapted by Justin Haythe (The Clearing) from a 1961 novel by Richard Yates, is a more brutally honest and bleak picture of the ugly truth that lurks underneath the clean-cut yards and behind the perfect windows. The dialogue cuts to the quick, exposing nerves with its acidic observations. Everything about this film’s aesthetic qualities feels right, from the production design by Kristi Zea, to the costumes by Albert Wolsky, from the various snippets of period music to the melancholy score by Thomas Newman. The cinematography, by Roger Deakins (Doubt and various Coen Brothers films including Fargo), is cold, pristine, calculated – even the way the backgrounds of certain shots are lit seem to be commenting on the story.
The performances by DiCaprio and Winslet are strong, of course, playing people who will grow to loathe one another, but like so many unhappy couples, seem to be staying together almost despite the kids – would it be better for them if they were children of divorce? Michael Shannon, then, is brilliant in just two short scenes as the horrifically observant outsider who sizes up the situation and then cuts into his prey, exposing their weaknesses so that they may no longer do what so many did at the time – deny they are miserable. Like Viola Davis in John Patrick Shanley’sDoubt, Shannon is a sort of game-changer, bringing a whole new level of perspective into the proceedings.
In a way, the whole film is not simply about the Wheelers and their unhappiness, but about the perception of the people surrounding them and how nobody really knew their neighbors or the truth behind their eyes back then; everyone was unhappy, some were just better at living with it as a state of being than others. Near the end, after a particularly brutal argument, there is an eerie calm. It’s almost as if the Wheelers are awaking from a shared nightmare, only to return to their glossy dream-life. Then reality sets in.
“The mass of men,” Henry Thoreau wrote, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” In the Wheelers’ case, they are each leading a life of desperation shrieking, waiting to explode; the final shot is sorta perfect. This is one of the year’s best films.
Note: Nominated for 3 Oscars including Supporting Actor (Shannon). Incidentally, I discovered after seeing the film that the novel has the DiCaprio and Winslet characters reversed – the husband is the dreamer and the woman is the realist. Interesting.