As long as they had Paris, they had hope. Actually, as frustrated suburban housewife April Wheeler would later reveal, it didn’t have to be the famed City of Light. Anywhere other than the stifling outskirts of reality known as Connecticut would have been just fine. When they first met, April and her husband Frank connected like all post-war couples did. She was lured to his solider boy sense of overseas adventure. He saw stability and blossoming homespun sexuality. Together, the formed the seemingly perfect veneer of American Dream determination. But somewhere along the route to their white picket fence home on Revolutionary Road, the Wheelers got sidetracked. The resulting diversion left them shattered, disenchanted, and barely alive.
Thus we have the setup for Richard Yates devastating novel named after the infamous avenue, and Sam Mendes return to post-Jarhead prominence. We follow April and Frank as they meet, make love, get married, and take a home outside the sprawling metropolis of Manhattan. After years living the nuclear fantasy, she feels trapped. Relocating to Europe will be the spark that reignites their previous passion, and at first, her husband agrees. But as he falls into an easy affair with a member of the typing pool, and sees his fortunes at working failing upward, Frank no longer “feels” France. Instead, he wants to stay in the states and have another baby. This devastates April, who must resort to extreme measures to keep her own hopes and dreams alive.
Apparently, in order to enjoy Mendes take on Revolutionary Road, you have to (a) have never read the Yates’ book it is based on, (b) never watched an episode of AMC’s au courant revisionist hipster drama Mad Men, and (c) believe the filmmaker’s previous Oscar winning effort, American Beauty, was not some award season anomaly. Add in the “isn’t that cute” conceit of having three members of James Cameron’s Titanic back onscreen (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates) and the pedigree everyone involved provides, and you’re either drunk on the idea of the film, or failing to see the true mess that Mendes has made. Actually, none of this is true. In a season which sees underage sex with war criminals celebrated and old racists made warm and fuzzy, Revolutionary Road stands as a bold bit of filmmaking. It’s not always pleasant, but then again, neither is life.
At its core, Mendes has made a movie about why couples fall apart. This isn’t some new or novel statement about how Eisenhower era marrieds managed the ennui of a sheltered, socially acceptable existence. It’s not the precursor to the Swinging ’60s or the rationale for the upcoming sexual revolution, civil rights movement, or any other protracted activism. Instead, what screenwriter Justin Haythe gets out of Yates’ book is the basis for how love leaks out and slowly dissipates. With bravura work from Winslet and DiCaprio, almost every conversation between April and Frank devolves into a shouting match of unspoken horrors and simmering dissatisfaction. Many of these sequences leave the viewer breathless, their truth and honesty about as soul searching and bearing as cinema gets.
But there is more than just arguments here. Revolutionary Road stages the preamble for a kind of upheaval, even if it isn’t strongly social or political. Within each person lies a series of disappointments and unrealized dreams. Mendes makes this the nucleus of his film, following two people as they destroy who they want to be in order to preserve what they think they are. We never really see the Wheelers as a family unit. Kids are always shuttered to the side (oddly enough, their first appearance onscreen is shocking since Mendes doesn’t portray Frank or April as parent material) and friendly neighborhood get-togethers become the fodder for that night’s bickering. Neither partner wants to work – April’s pipe dream derives from the “outrageous” wages paid to European civil servants while Frank has to “find” himself. But the need to conform matched with the desire to drop out sets up something seismic in their household. When the façade cracks, the quake is truly crushing.
In a movie overloaded with amazing performances, three stand out. DiCaprio has finally “grown up” onscreen, dropping any of this youthful primping and performance preening to become a true, legitimate leading ‘man’. He looks perfectly comfortable in his gray flannel suit situation. Winslet is radiant as a bohemian broken by the Stepford sense of purpose around her. She can make a happy home, but would much rather have a fulfilled life. Balancing said need within the parameters of a patriarchal three martini and beefsteak setting is the actress’s trained tour de force. She is simply stunning at times. And then there’s Bates, bringing down her dowager immenseness to play opinionated if outside. She’s the kind of fussy, frightened mouse/spouse who talks a good game, but can’t keep her own business tidy.
Speaking of her issues, Bates is blessed with a schizophrenic son who speaks as the forward thinking voice of a future blank generation. Played with Oscar worthy aplomb by an amazing Michael Shannon, John Givings is a nonconformist in every facet of the word. During a critical sequence in the woods, a walk with April and Frank turns into something so remarkable that you feel your heart literally skip a beat – and John’s line about life is enough to start an entire subculture all its own. It’s these kinds of nuanced bits that seem to fall freely from Mendes vision. When we see Frank shacking up with his temporary secretary, her Bettie Page pertness reminds us of the erotic explosion to come, and his coworkers cut a swath across the entire dynamic of last gasp machismo.
Yet it’s the overall interaction and intenseness of Revolutionary Road that turns it from a neverending episode of the Bickersons into motion picture mastery. The fights between our main characters do come across as cruel and manipulative, but they ring with a kind of brash authenticity that’s hard to shake. And even as the storyline slow burns toward its tragic ending, inevitable and yet inexcusable, we drink in the directorial beauty and pitch perfect performances. Mendes may be the current revisionist whipping boy for a geek nation convinced that Beauty beat the rest of 2000’s competition based on some manner of industry fix. Yet it’s impossible to deny his execution here. From cast to conclusion, Revolutionary Road is fate funneled through a true artist’s muse. It’s one of 2008’s very best.
And by the way, Paris would not have saved the Wheelers. Nothing could.