I’m trying to refrain from reviewing older films randomly unless they fit into an existing project such as Finishing School or the forthcoming Basic Training, but Revolutionary Road sparked such contemplation that I can’t not write about it. Although set in the 1950s and based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, the film is effortlessly universal and urgently relevant to life today by identifying that while the trappings of the conformist, more repressive 50s but may be gone, feeling trapped within one’s society is always possible.
Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are a young couple living the reputed American Dream: a lovely suburban house, two kids, and a job that supports their lifestyle. But the ambitions they had as they entered adulthood have dwindled in significance without their realising it, so they become determined to boldly break with convention by moving their family to Paris. However, neither of them know exactly what they want to do with their lives, so their attitudes to change begin to diverge.
This is a remarkably insightful film that is painful in its resonance. DiCaprio and Winslet beautifully embody the struggle of wanting to change their lives but not knowing how, and the intertextuality with Titanic is poignant. By casting the two, Revolutionary Road almost becomes the story of what would have happened to the whirlwind love affair of Jack and Rose if they had both survived and found themselves in 1950s America in a life innately more mundane than than when they fell in love. That contrast with idealised, timeless love adds an additional layer, as we see very little of Frank and April’s relationship before they started hungering for something new.
The dialogue cuts to the heart of these personal agonies, although occasionally being a little too profound for the heat of the moment. April speaking of the nature of truth in the middle of a fraught argument stretches credulity, and in this and other cases the film can wear its ideas on its sleeve too readily, particularly in the character of John Givings (Michael Shannon). A mathematics PhD transitioning from life in a psychiatric ward, John is introduced to the Wheelers by their quintessentially suburban ‘friend’ Helen (Kathy Bates) in the hope that time spent with Such A Delightful Young Couple may help his recovery. John proves to be the only person who sees the value in moving to Paris and starting anew, and feels betrayed when their opinions change. John is a battering ram smashed into quaint suburbia, questioning its values and purpose but not taken seriously because of his condition.
Shannon is tremendous in the role, a seething malcontent angry at the world but lacking the social ability to impart his ideas without alienating those who hear him. Unfortunately though, the character is redundant, giving voice to notions that are plainly apparent in what is said and unsaid between Frank and April (his first scene is followed by them noting how he is the only one who agrees with them when it’s plainly obvious that they’ve realised this). He doesn’t even affect the decisions they make, rather serving as a Greek chorus on the tragedies that surround him. It’s a shame that Shannon – who I’m now looking forward to watching in the Martin Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire – is not used to more consequential effect.
His character is the film’s only misstep into heavy-handedness because much of the characterisation is conveyed visually, both by Mendes and the cast. There’s a beautiful contrast between Frank in a sea of identical office workers and April standing on her empty street, surrounding by matching garbage cans, and a climactic shot of Frank running is wrenching in its fulfillment of a recurring refrain. While the film relies a little too much on dialogue – perhaps due to Mendes’s theatre background – this is still a gorgeously visual film and one ripe for character analysis merely from the actors’ expressions.
Central to this intricacy is how they respond to revelation, which is where Road diverges from American Beauty. Lester Burnham’s journey was bookended by contrasting epiphanies that enabled him to realise the beauty in the life he scorned, but Frank and April are unable to act on theirs. Although each may believe the other has a different view on what needs to be fixed, they are equally crippled by varying terms of acceptance with the harsh realities hemming them in. Frank is torn between the average life he knows and the promise of a more fulfilling one, but he only glimpses it in faint outline with no confidence in what it would actually be. April instead wants to go for broke and try anything but her current life, and so remaining in it would be a conscious choice rather than merely powered by inertia, rendering it agonising in a way Frank can’t understand.
If you’re at all affected by such dilemmas of purpose and direction, then this film will wrench at you and remain in your thoughts. The novel has a reputation as being the forerunner of the fiction of suburban discontent, so it is appropriate that the film stands as one of the finest and most acutely observed recent examinations of “lives of quiet desperation”. Revolutionary Road is a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to settle for less.