For years I thought we shared this secret, that we could be wonderful.
–April Wheeler (Kate Winslet)
The first minutes of Revolutionary Road look like the first minutes of many films. A couple of young beauties glance across a New York City living room crowded with other fine-looking extras. The camera catches their exchange of glances and then, off in a corner, their first conversation, their efforts to remain casual belied by their mutual attraction, her smile confident, his relaxed slouch studied. She’s studying to be an actress, she tells him. He’s not so sure what he wants to do.
In the case of Sam Mendes’ movie, this routine scene is quickly, brutally undone in the next few. The perfect-seeming couple, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet), is now married. She’s acting on a suburban Connecticut stage, and he’s sitting dutifully in the audience. When the curtain goes down, you haven’t seen a moment of the performance, but know it’s been bad because someone seated near Frank says, a little too loudly, “She was very disappointing!” Frank himself seems confused — like he wasn’t sure what he was watching. But again, as you only see his face after the show, you have no idea how to gauge him. Then he enters the dressing room where he tries to console his tearful wife: “I guess it wasn’t a triumph, was it?” Now you can gauge him.
The next turn taken by Revolutionary Road is both grim and stunning. As Frank and April Wheeler are driving home, they begin to argue. It’s a slow burning discord, emerging plainly from her grief and resentment, as well as his frustration. It’s not long before they’ve touched on exactly the problem that will plague them for the rest of the film, their sense that they’re different from their neighbors, better somehow, or maybe just more self-conscious and tinged with potential. But even as they see this in themselves, they attack one another. “You’re not gonna get away with twisting everything I say,” Frank hisses. In other words, this isn’t the first time they’ve had this fight. “You’re sick, you’re disgusting,” she comes back. “How can you call yourself a man?” Bullseye.
Based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about desperation in the burbs, Revolutionary Road has been called a companion piece to Mendes’ overpraised American Beauty, and it is that, to the extent that — following this outburst — April is turned into the prize Frank wants to own and the puzzle he seeks to solve. Like Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, DiCaprio’s character believes he’s out of place, that he doesn’t deserve to be so miserable, that his sensibility (which he sees as sensitivity) is unlike his neighbors’. Also like Lester, Frank finds the source of his problems in his home — the wife who has born him two children, the house he must labor to maintain, the driveway where he pulls up each evening and dreads the walk to the front door. At work in the city, to which he commutes by train, he sits in a cubicle, surrounded by men who think he’s witty and encouraged by his employers to believe he’s good at what he does. Trouble is, as he indicated to April in the very first lines he spoke to her, he remains unsure that what he’s doing is what he wants to do.
As the film glances at April through Frank’s eyes, she is increasingly perplexing. Not only does she not appreciate what he has given up in order to support her, but neither does she respect him. Thus he is shocked when she comes to him with a proposal: What if they move to Paris, a city he visited as a soldier and now recalls with fondness? And what if she supports him, so he can discover what he really wants to do? What if she gives him the chance to be the man she once saw in him?
The idea throws a couple of wrenches into Frank’s self-image, forever a work in progress. And the film takes up his struggle with a vengeance. He initiates an affair with his young and tediously naïve secretary Maureen (Zoe Kazan), taking her for drinks on his birthday. Post-tryst, he behaves as badly as any first-time cheater, pecking her cheek and telling her, “You were swell,” not noticing her vaguely sad and suddenly lonely effort to cover her breasts as he abandons her in her own apartment bedroom. In Maureen, the film suggests, he finds a self-affirming mirror (though she’s so vacant in this rendering, you’d never guess that she has her own reasons for sleeping with him).
Frank’s navel-gazing doesn’t let him see how he leaves Maureen or what April does while he’s away during the days, like sit for coffee with the anxious neighbor and real estate agent Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates). This latter role allows her to speak portentously on the home she has found for them, its very perfection a sign of the Wheelers’ confinement. When she hears that her clients and neighbors hope to leave — for after his initial resistance, Frank agrees to go, for a moment seeing himself as she frames him, as a man who needs only to find his passion — Mrs. Givings is pleasant and troubled. Understanding the need to leave, of course, would mean understanding there’s something wrong with the perfection she’s secured right here. And that the ominously named Mrs. Givings cannot do.
She can do is introduce yet another term into the imbalance she sees, that is, her son John (Michael Shannon). She wants to have him meet with someone “young,” someone whom he might like, as he’s just released from a mental institution. John jumps feet first into the Wheelers’ still life, first commending their effort to escape the “hopeless emptiness” of suburbs. For John, as for Frank and April, Paris represents a faraway fantasy, and he doesn’t quite believe it, but he’s willing to grant them their effort, even as he sees in them the same dismal gap that he sees in his own parents. Angry beyond words at his mother (he was committed, he explains, for “going after [her] with a coffee table”), John is in fact very adept at speaking the tragedy lived by all the denizens of Revolutionary Road.
It’s for this articulation that John — and especially, Shannon’s performance — has garnered critical attention. But his role as chorus is only another sign of the film’s inability to get past Frank’s bewilderment. The stranger and more threatening April becomes for him, the more he needs a spokesperson, someone who might condemn her and him and the secret they have shaped between them. For even as April keeps telling him that he is not his neighbors, Frank slips closer and closer into the “hopeless emptiness,” seeing it not as hopeless or empty but as the way things are. And when April stops speaking to him, when she condemns them both to her silence, John’s words suddenly reverberate, loud, clangy, and too close to right.