After being shown the first cut of Revolutionary Road, Alan Ball apparently wanted to stab Sam Mendes with a fork.
It’s hard to find reason to blame him. Based on Richard Yates’ iconic 1961 novel of the same name, this cutting tale of suburban isolation and emotional self-destruction has had a long gestation period in Hollywood, being picked up and dropped by the likes of John Frankenheimer, Todd Field, and several other notable directors—all who thought they could tackle it before realizing just how unfilmable Yates’ vision was.
When newcomer Justin Haythe finally tried out a screenplay (commissioned by the newly-found BBC Films), the script began picking up steam, championed by Kate Winslet who in turn got both husband Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and old friend Leonardo DiCaprio on board. Once those names were set, production began almost instantaneously.
So why the fork stabbing?
Alan Ball—aside from being the screenwriter for American Beauty—is also Mendes’ friend and a fan of Yates’ novel. Upon seeing a screening of the film, he was obviously upset with a lot of the changes that Mendes had made, but in the remarkably-insightful commentary on the DVD to Revolutionary Road, Mendes justifies a lot of his changes.
The book opens with April Wheeler (Winslet) performing a very poorly-done play, everyone walking up and giving her congratulations before slagging her off when she’s not looking. Her husband Frank (DiCaprio) is supportive up to a point. When his opinions about the production surface in the car ride home, an argument erupts, Frank is forced to pull over, and the Wheelers—now seven years married—face serious problems that are running through the heart of their marriage (the scene of them arguing by the car being oddly reminiscent of the confrontation between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).
Mendes opens the film on a scene where Frank and April first meet at a party, establishing their interest for each other before jumping to the play seven years later—and even then, we arrive just as the curtain closes, the audience’s reaction telling us all we need to know.
Mendes and Haythe take multiple small liberties like this, but some of these choices originate from necessity. Yates’ novel relied heavily on interior monologue (specifically for Frank), and as such, numerous elements are externalized in Frank’s world, most notably in his fishbowl of an office, where he’s just another face in a sea of gray flannel and unfulfilled dreams.
At home, April is lonely and isolated, the act of her dragging the trash cans out to the curb rendered all the more solitary given that every house on the block already has their trash cans out and no one in their yards, as if April is lost in a desert made out of white picket fences and perennially-green lawns.
Ultimately, April feels unsatisfied. Though her desire to become an actress has been brushed aside, she’s not content with simply being a housewife and mother (the children in the film are—much like in the novel—mere props, devoid of sentimentality as neither Frank or April have any real feelings for them). She remembers a conversation she had with Frank some time ago about how after serving in the war, he’d go back to Paris “the first chance [he] gets”.
She puts all her eggs in one basket and convinces Frank that this is their “way out” of their life: moving to Paris, herself getting a secretarial job while Frank figures out what he really wants to do with his life, their savings keeping them afloat for the first couple of months. It takes some prodding, but Frank buys into it, as well: he hates his job and works it only so he can support his family—so what’s there to lose, really?
It is here that we get to the central theme of Revolutionary Road: the desire for something more than just a normal life. When the Wheelers first move into their home on the titular road of the title, their real-estate agent Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) tells April that she senses something “special” about her, different from all the other tenants that she’s had. This gives April a bit of assurance, as she’s convinced that her life is more than just raising kids and mowing lawns. There’s an emptiness inside her and—despite his reluctance to admit it—in Frank, too. They don’t want to become like their neighbors, Shep and Milly Campbell (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), who have succumbed to the suburban “trap”, and live peacefully with four children.
When the Wheeler’s tell the Campbell’s about their idea to move to Paris, they aren’t greeted with joyous surprise: Shep and (especially) Milly stare at them, unsure of the Wheeler’s intentions and realistic expectations. The question is posed to Frank later on: what is he going to find about himself in Paris that he can’t find here?
Gradually, as the plans for Paris falls apart, so does the Wheelers’ marriage. We, as the audience, are there with them from the uneasy start to the ultimate falling through, made all the worse by a few blissful scenes wherein both Frank and April are convinced that their Parisian escape will give them the spark that they need to escape their emptiness and hopelessness.
The only person who seems to condone the Wheelers’ plan is John Givings (Michael Shannon, in a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance). Giving is a former mathematician who has just been released from a psych ward, the filter between what he thinks and what he says seemingly severed, as the moments that he bursts into the Wheelers’ lives are the times when he deals out cold, hard, uncomfortable truths, railing on everything from April’s misery to Frank’s desire to prove himself a man.
One of the most fascinating scenes is near the film’s final act, wherein Frank and April can feel the tensile strength of their relationship near the breaking point. April is setting the table for dinner when Frank comes up to her and reveals that he has been having an affair with a secretary at work. He says he’s sorry, and is glad to finally come clean.
April stares at Frank, then asks what the meaning of all this is. Frank begins to explain, but April cuts him short. She wants to know not why he confessed the affair to her, but what sort of reaction he wanted April to have: jealousy? Rage? A tear-stricken emotional breakdown? Instead, April carries on, unaffected. Frank asks why she’s acting like this, to which April reveals that she doesn’t love Frank anymore. Then John Givings shows up.
To say that reactions to this film have been polarizing would be a bit of an understatement (even our film critics at PopMatters had wildly different reactions, with Bill Gibron awarding it a perfect score and Cynthia Fuchs’ decrying its emotionally inarticulate protagonist Frank).
Watching love slowly drain out of a marriage isn’t exactly the stuff that summer popcorn fare is made of, but Mendes frames it beautifully, the “Oscar bait” screaming matches never feeling forced or contrived. Winslet and DiCaprio are so set in their roles that we believe them even during their silences.
After the final “scream scene”, wherein the emotional distance between Frank and April becomes so great that April flees into the adjacent woods just to escape from Frank, the Wheelers find themselves awake the next morning, April preparing breakfast for Frank. He stares, but plays along. Before long, they’re eating, making small talk about the day ahead, and—for once—enjoying it. In Winslet’s face, you can see every emotional impulse trying to scream out, but her calm demeanor gives the pleasant illusion of happiness.
Before long, Frank’s mood has adjusted too, and—still not convinced this is all really happening—asks if April loves him. She says “of course”. He heads off to work. It’s a remarkable scene which by itself wouldn’t hold much weight, but given the emotional bruising that each character has inflicted on each other over the years, their restraint and contentedness over simple things is like putting a cork in a volcano, ourselves rapt with all the things they could be saying but aren’t (by choice).
Seeing the Wheelers succumb to the same “delusion” as everyone else is about as heartbreaking and moving a scene as you can imagine, almost to the point that the crippling actions that follow are almost entirely unnecessary.
Sparsely peppered with extras, the main highlight of the Revolutionary Road DVD is Mendes’ and Haythe’s commentary track, where Mendes meticulously walks us through the thought process for several scenes, explaining how to build and justify certain moments in a scene, how to let the audience let off steam shortly before the climax, and how certain scenes require the “intimacy” of handheld cinematography while others require a smoother approach.
The deleted scenes—though interesting—do not add a whole lot (and the “Dear Frank” one would’ve made for a cop-out of an ending, indicating that April’s final decision in the film was premeditated to an almost unfathomable degree), nor does the largely self-congratulatory “Lives of Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road” featurette. The commentary is a fantastic tour through the film, so much so that it’s even worth recommending for those who thought Mendes strayed from the novel too much: his justifications are largely sound.
In the end, what you get out of Revolutionary Road is ultimately a reflection of yourself. If you too have ever longed for something more in your life—as if you were different from everyone else, destined for something more—then its message hits home, and it hits hard. For a movie whose ultimate moral is that you’re not special no matter what you think, Revolutionary Road remains remarkably compelling viewing, a high drama that burrows deep into the emotional decay of the American Dream, showing all the ugly, unseemly details that no one wants to face.