A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, R, 119 mins.
2008, R, 119 mins.
Frank Wheeler: Leonardo DiCaprio / April Wheeler: Kate Winslet
/ Helen Givings: Kathy Bates / John Givings: Michael Shannon /
Milly Campbell: Kathryn Hahn / Shep Campbell: David Harbour /
Jack Ordway: Dylan Baker / Howard Givings: Richard Easton /
Maureen Grube: Zoe Kazan / Bart Pollock: Jay O. Sanders / Ed
Small: Max Casella
“Plenty of people are into the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”
John Givings (Michael Shannon) in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
Sam Mendes fourth directorial effort, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, is a gritty, deeply fatalistic, depressing, and brutally frank and harrowing dissection of the 1950’s myth of the American Dream. It portrays the marriage of a couple without dwelling on all of the reasons behind their doomed courtship, and as a result of doing so it becomes an uncannily effective and unflinching expose on the dread of losing one’s dreams to the naive and utterly hopeless standards that society often bombards people with.
the heart Mendes’ impeccably directed and swelteringly performed film is
a simple question: Can the
“American Dream” of a wife, children, a nice and and good job be a
mercilessly neutering force to peoples' sense of personal identity and
creativity? If anything, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD answers to the affirmative
with its attempts at taking cruel exception to the notion that its time
period in American history was anything but rosy and superlative.
The 1950’s ‘dream' is more of a false façade for a
psychological nightmare to many families.
film – based on the cult 1961 Richard Yates novel about a 1950’s
marriage rotting in the suburbs – maintains the source material’s
period detail: modernizing it for contemporary consumption would have be a
drastic mistake. By setting
the film squarely during a period of Eisenhower and McCarthy, it manages
to become a damming indictment of the time that further managed to typify
the emotional and spiritual hardships of the marriages
contained within it. American
life in the 1950’s could easily be labeled as one of rigid, almost
blind-sighted, conformity, particularly in the suburbs, which were spawned
and continued to grow in the wake of WWII.
It is this powerful conformist spirit that both Yates’ book and
Mendes’ film reveal is ultimately doomed from the start.
The overwhelming aura to be like others and maintain a normal
level of decorum in the family was served up at a huge psychological cost:
The foundation of a marriage – with its partners feebly
attempting to find simple solutions to life’s most difficult and taxing
concerns – eventually imploded it.
How happy can two people truly be if they go gradually crazy with
trying to preserve a false veneer of bliss and happiness?
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD tells us, in a gut-wrenchingly honest manner, that
people of the time made heartrending compromises to achieve happiness
that, ironically enough, made their ability to actually be happy a near
really compelling is how Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe don't dwell on
needless and redundant expositional formulas: This film is not about the
origins of a relationship and failed marriage, it’s really about how the
marriage becomes so tearfully futile for both parties.
Yes, the film does begin with a standard meet-cute between the
future husband and wife, the Wheelers: April and Frank (played in two of
2008’s most unflinchingly candid and explosively powerful performances
by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio).
The film opens in the past and we briefly get a glimpse of the
young couple so far removed from the tortuous mayhem that will clinch to
their future marriage. They
exchange fleeting glances, smile at one another, and predictably get
film then does something unexpected and clever.
Just when we fully expect to sit through their passionate and
loving courtship, Mendes turns the tables and quickly flashes forwards to
a dark point in their marriage (the film weaves and interweaves from past
to present throughout the rest of narrative).
April has just finished the opening night performance of a local
community production of “The Petrified Forrest”, which emerges as a
rather petrified and putrid production that gets many snicker and snide
remarks from the incredulous viewers.
April knows how bad both she and the play were, and wallows in a
sad pool of self-pity in the dressing room.
Frank comes in and approaches her with what we expect would be some
consolation. Instead, he
makes a categorical blunder by making a smart-ass joke about how wretched
the whole play was. Both
April – and us in the audience – are not impressed.
gets worse and continues to snowball with a meteoric pace.
Several minutes after this beyond-awkward exchange between the
pair, the two have become so hostile and verbal caustic with one another
during the ride home that Frank is forced to pull the car over so that
they can leave the constricted confines of the vehicle and really let the
hurtin' fly. For many, seeing
these scenes up front and very early in the film will be a squirming
endurance test, but Mendes hits his stride early on with the film’s
nerve-wracking and erratic tone: Since
we never really find out how these two became an item and married, it
forces us to endure and focus on their present hardships, which
additionally hones in on the film’s added social and historical layer of
the brittleness of maintaining the pieces of a doomed marriage during a
time when everyone thinks all marriages were fine.
between the pair begins to falter even more. The
internalized bubble of their outwardly neat, tidy, and simple lives is suffocating them by the minute.
Adding ever more fuel to the fire is the notion that Frank – whom
April once saw as a young man with a passion for life and an unbridled
creative zeal to try anything – has now joined the monotonous ranks of
the white collar worker in a job that he deeply detests.
His loathing of his work hurts his love for his wife, which
leads him to stray from her and to a short-live fling with a buxom office
worker (Zoë Kazan). As much
the thought of eking out a living in an occupation that never once
creatively challenges him, Frank nonetheless feels that he must stay with
it to be able to financially maintain the lifestyle both he and April
believe they need with their two young children.
However, the more detached and angry Frank becomes as a result of
his daily routine, the more it segregates him from having any semblance of
a normal relationship with April.
however, hatches a late-game-breaking plan to save their marriage:
Mustering up the courage and nerve, she manages to convince the
initially hesitant Frank that the two should sell off their nice character
home on Revolutionary Road and use the proceeds to move the family to
France (a place Frank has always professed to love and yearned to return
to at some point in his life). April
confines in Frank that this is a necessary step to completely erode the
sense of emptiness and futility of American suburban life.
Frank has no clue about what he could possible do for a job once
overseas, but the industrious April believes that she would have no
problem securing a high paying job as a translator at the American Embassy
there. Clearly, the thought
of April being the soul breadwinner is a wound to Frank’s masochistic
pride, but the appeal of ridding himself of his loathsome existence
stateside appeals to him. Unfortunately,
April later learns that she has become pregnant, which regrettably acts as
a major obstacle that leads the pair away from their aspirations of leaving
home and instead forces them to tackle the tenuousness of keeping hope in
their marriage afloat. The
more and more they chisel away at the counterfeit lives they have
struggled to create for their family, the more disturbingly detached they
become with one another.
ROAD has drawn critics to compare it to one of Mendes' other Oscar
darlings, AMERICAN BEAUTY, for the way both film’s take a corrosive and
scathing look at suburban family life, albeit during two different time
periods. In actuality, I
found REVOLUTIONARY ROAD more akin to another Kate Winslet vehicle, LITTLE
CHILDREN, which also gave viewers a supremely bleak perspective of a
failed marriage and how one woman urgently tried to emancipate herself
from it. Even more so that
both CHILDREN and AMERICAN BEAUTY, Mendes’ film grabs viewers by the
jugular and daringly forges ahead to strangle viewers even more forcefully
with terrifying standoffs between its married couple.
There is an intense cruelty and wrenching honesty to many of their
arguments, during which they furiously lash out at each other: their
heated and volatile arguments reveal real truths that bite at the core of
how couples lash out at each other. Words are often the most powerful
weapons, and once hastily used, they’re almost impossible to forgive and
no small wonder why the film works so staggeringly well on its levels,
which is thanks largely to the immaculately compassionate and fiery
performances by both Winslet and DiCaprio, who have been close personal
friends behind the camera for years: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD marks the on-screen
couple’s long awaited return after
1997’s TITANIC. Yet, their
work here is so far removed from the innocent frivolity of their
melodramatic moments together on the doomed ocean liner.
There is nothing remotely appealing and amiable about the characters
on display in Mendes' film: their relationship is ugly, frequently
repugnant, and as rotten as them come.
There is sometimes a sense that Frank and April will seek
forgiveness with one another, but their delicate attempts at
reconciliation only further reveals the hollowness of their love.
By the time the film progresses towards a dark final act, there
does not seem to be much hope at all for these condemned and ruined
personas: wrong moves and spoiled dreams have chased Frank and April so
far and for so long that it has caused them to utterly disengage
themselves from a conformists spirit.
They learn, excruciatingly at the worst possible time, that the
happiness and congeniality of their idealized 50’s marriage is nothing
more than a shaky illusion.
Winslet, as she has demonstrated both here and in countless previous
films, has shown that she is one of the more intensely brave and
accomplished actresses of her generation; she is able to so
effortlessly dial into the inner pathos and deeply vented anxiety of her
bipolar character. It’s
crucial to point out that she is not a pathetic victim; she too is a
flawed and frequently delusion figure that attempts to find meaning in a
marriage that she knows is meaningless.
DiCaprio – who was so unceremoniously snubbed of a worthy Oscar
nomination by the Academy last week when they were announced – is simply
mesmerizing as the film’s other blemished and imperfect spouse.
The actor has the thorniest task of all in the film for the way
that he has to show Frank's gradual sense of realizing the failure that he
has become to both himself and his wife.
Frank is a bi-product of a male empowered decade that he
lives in, so the thought of leaving his soul-crushing job and having April
support the family is a sore spot for him.
That, and the growing self-actualization that the fantasy of moving
to Paris is ultimately too simple-minded for its own good.
His character’s pragmatism is at direct odds with April’s
wishes for him to reconnect with his past bohemian impulses.
Between the pair, there is rarely a false or phoned-in moment
between them as they both are equal to the challenge of capturing both of
their character’s meanness and stubborn selfishness.
of the other supporting performance are equally refined, especially by the
great Kathy Bates, playing Helen Givings, a real estate lady that
introduced the Wheelers to their suburban home (she has an almost Stepford
Wife-level of conforming to the 50’s family ideal).
Yet, her family is also beset with issues, primarily in the form of
her son, John (Michael Shannon, a terrific character actor noted for his
edgy creepiness) whose just been in a metal institution that has given him
electroshock therapy dozen of times.
Inanely, the happy-go-lucky Helen thinks it would be good to invite
him along with Her and her husband for a nice cozy supper with Frank and
April. John has many mental
deficiencies and certainly is not playing with a full deck, but where he
lacks in social skills he more than makes up for in vicious and unruly
honesty. He occupies the
film’s single most memorable and powerful moment when he places Frank
and April under his scrutinizing microscope and savagely berates the pair
for the delusion that is their lives.
The truly disturbing aspect of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is that a complete
loon is able to see past the Wheeler’s failed attempts at
happiness better than the sane people around them.
Mendes is one of the finest working directors around, who has displayed an unparalleled command of marrying spell-binding performances with a razor sharp and articulate scripts ripe with evocative and sobering themes (beyond the already mentioned AMERICAN BEAUTY, his career also shows his astonishing range: he made one of the most undervalued war film’s of the lasted decade in JARHEAD and previous to that made the 2002 period gangster drama ROAD TO PERDITION, based on the respected graphic novel of the same name). REVOLUTIONARY ROAD may just be his most keenly observed, painstakingly unsettling, and enormously fascinating of all his works: It takes a raw, cold and riveting look at the lies that seem buried beneath the 1950’s suburban reverie of peace and harmony in the family unit. By emphasizing the breakdown of a marriage without allowing for our emotional investment into the more lively and pleasant build up to the nuptials, Mendes manages to – with a surgeons’ precision – revel in the ways two people of a particular period deal with the death of their personal liberation during a time when non-conformity was chastised.
Alongside that, we have the dynamic tandem of Winslet and DiCaprio,
whom the world will fondly remember playing two young starry-eyed lovers
that were "on top of the world" in TITANIC, but here they all but erode that
film’s clean-cut and sparkling romance with two of the most accomplished
portrayals of fractured and tortured spouses you’ll likely to
find. Both of their characters are victims to the superficiality of the falsely hopeful and
idealistic times they unfortunately find themselves occupying.
If Kate and Frank lived today, their rocky union would seem like an
after thought. In the time
they lived in – one where divorce and abortion were not everyday words
– their existence becomes almost pathetically tragic.