A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #9


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

Directed by Sam Mendes / Screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates.

“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.  


At 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. 

The 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 impossibility. 

What’s 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 together. 

The 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. 

It 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. 

Communication 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. 

She, 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. 

REVOLUTIONARY 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 forget. 

It’s 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. 

Kate 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. 

Some 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. 

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