Revolutionary Road (2008)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Ryan Simpkins, Ty Simpkins, Kathy Bates, Richard Easton, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn
  • Director: Sam Mendes
  • Screenplay: Justin Haythe (Novel: Richard Yates)
  • Length: 119 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

When is what is left unsaid more profound than what is verbalized? The story of Revolutionary Road examines that conceit by displaying the suburban malaise felt by two passionate and freedom-loving people whose white picket fence lives threaten to suffocate them.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio re-team for the first time in eleven years in Sam Mendes’ adaptation of the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road. Taking his greatest inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk, but more recently seen in the critically acclaimed Far From Heaven. The style involves deconstructing the positive spin that the media placed on the ideal suburban family and showing every wart that could possibly exist. While the melodrama is certainly a danger in this type of work, Mendes keeps the film centered on the performances of DiCaprio and Winslet.

The young couple, hoping to live the “American Dream” come to understand how restricting and forced the entire concept is and work very hard to keep their marriage intact despite the differences keeping them apart. Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) longed to move to France and live high and free. His wife April (Winslet) wanted the same for him and their family, but as time went on, they moved farther away from this goal. The film centers around one last desperate attempt to achieve that dream.

April hopes to convince Frank that his seemingly dead-end job is worth giving up and that, if they sell their perfect house, they could have enough to move to France and live for a short time while Frank explores his artistic and adventurous side and gets to a point where he can make money doing what he loves. Frank, prepared to make the move, makes a work decision that he believes will result in his termination only to discover they want to promote him.

The draw of guaranteed money versus the potential sting of none leads Frank towards accepting the job in spite of his wife’s protestations. Her free spirit clearly yearns to breathe free while his seems to be perfectly amenable to the suffocation as long as it’s lucrative.

Throw into the mix Frank’s desire to have a second child and his wife’s insistence that they not, and you have a tumultuous relationship ripe for explosive disagreements and disastrous recrimination, which is exactly what happens. However, the film feels more stage bound than a lot of other films adapted directly from the stage (such as this year’s Frost/Nixon and Doubt). And that style is almost perfectly appropriate to the story, as the audience needs to feel the entrapment and restriction the characters do. However, it does make it a bit more artistic and less broadly appealing.

Mendes does a lot of quiet, background work that doesn’t impede on the story and he makes several wise decisions. There are some scenes that could be explained better and others that could have been shortened, but overall, the film is a success.

And along with an experience hand and the effective screenplay by Justin Haythe, the film features a bevy of tremendous performances, only one of which feels out of place and unnecessary.

Kathy Bates and Richard Easton play two of the Wheeler’s neighbors and friends in the film and although they do some fine, solid work, Michael Shannon, as their mentally challenged son, causes the film to grind to a halt too frequently and too excessively.

Seeming more like the bratty child at a wedding reception than as the conscience evoked by the muses in many Shakespearean plays, Shannon’s performance is awkward and annoying. Although he vocalizes truths about the Wheeler’s and what is left unsaid between them, his purpose as a catalyst for their further internal dissolution feels entirely out of place. It was a stunt that may have worked better on the page than in actual execution and was handled far better by the subtle performances of the film’s two leads.

Before getting to the leads, it’s important to also recognize the work of two rather talented actors in relatively minor roles. David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn as Shep and Milly Campbell, another set of the Wheeler’s neighbors, show us how a dispassionate couple can cope with its surroundings. Unlike the Wheelers, their lassitude doesn’t seem destined for destruction. They have come to terms with their turmoil and have seemingly accepted even though both feel a deep emotional connection with their neighbors. They provide some of the most honest and heartfelt scenes in the film.

DiCaprio continues to improve with age. Although he still has some trouble convincing audiences they are watching a character and not the actor,  his ability to carry a role as difficult and emotionally challenging as Frank Wheeler confirms that he has moved from teen heartthrob into the realm of serious performer.

Winslet delivers a magnificent performance as the wistful, passionate and tragic wife, forced into a role as homemaker that she doesn’t particularly enjoy. It’s a testament to her ability that we firmly identify with her character. A scene late in the film as she stares out the window at all the artificiality of her neighborhood amid her sorrow and a single shocking act, is an unparalleled scene. So many emotions are tied to that one moment, that it is no surprise that this is the climax of the feature. A combination of her powerful performance and the emotional sucker punch of the scene make it an outright success.

There has never been a time in history where relationships were easy. Couples have long been fighting with one another over the biggest and smallest of issues. Even though modern couples are much more willing to fight out their differences, oftentimes resulting in divorce, the period explored in Revolutionary Road was idealized so much through television and other media that conflicts as these were seen as an aberration and not the norm. And although these type of situations have been explored many times in the history of film, it is still a subject that holds a great deal of interest for filmmakers, novelists and artists of all styles. That Revolutionary Road still feels relevant today despite being set fifty years is one of the key reasons the film is such a success both emotionally and philosophically.