Film Reviews

Revolutionary Road Sam Mendes

Rating - 8/10

It seems that Richard Yate’s cult novel Revolutionary Road still has a lot to say to audiences half a century after its conception. Adapted into a film directed by Sam Mendes, the despair, regret and thwarted ambition of a young married couple residing in suburbia in the mid 1950s still strongly resonates with today’s generation. At the heart of this powerful drama is the elusive question of whether it is more courageous to follow your dreams or face up to your responsibility. This film explores the often devastating consequences of making that choice. 

Revolutionary Road opens with April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo Dicaprio) as they meet each other for the first time, exchanging glances across the room at an over-crowded Bohemian party in New York. She tells him that she wants to be an actress and it seems clear to both that Frank is destined for something special. They are enchanted with one another and with the future. It is heartbreaking then that the film curtly switches to the present tense where Frank watches, without hiding his disappointment, as his now wife April, falters in a community theatre performance. As the curtains close, Winslet’s face says it all: her dreams are broken. When Frank tries to comfort his wife, albeit with the wrong words, they heatedly argue and one gets the feeling that this is a fight they have had many a night before. They throw around the kind of crushing insults that reveal a relationship beyond repair.
As the film continues, the audience learn how the Wheelers have slid into a life-sapping lifestyle. Frank works a mindless job where he has a routine fling with the secretary and April leads a Stepford-Wife existence at home, looking after their two children. Both are desperate for something more even if they are unable to articulate what it is, beyond a yearning for something other than a life of going through the motions. In a desperate bid for sanity and what one believes is their last chance at happiness, April comes up with a plan on Frank’s 30th birthday to move to Paris and start anew. She will find a job in reception while Frank will have time to “find himself.” Overwhelmed and touched by his wife’s fervor, Frank agrees to the plan and the audience begins to catch glimpses of the couple who fell in love. However reality slowly begins to intrude on the fantasy and Paris begins to seem more like an elusive dream the couple were clutching at to keep their heads above water.
There is something about the suffocating nature of suburbia which appeals to director Mendes who also examined what lies behind the white picket fence façade in American Beauty. Perhaps unfairly Mendes seems to present the notion that the so-called American Dream can only be achieved at the expense of compromising one’s soul and creativity. While his perspective does not ring true for every person, for those who do feel trapped by a predictable existence, this film is a powerful exploration of the depths of such “hopeless emptiness.” While at one point Frank and April both believed their stint in suburbia was just a temporary arrangement, on their way to something special, they come to acknowledge in a flash of clarity, they are just as ordinary as those they share their neighbourhood with. And while Frank may be able to live with this, it is a truth too crushing for April. One of the film’s most poignant scenes is when April confides in a friend, “For years I thought we shared this secret, that we would be wonderful in the world… just the possibility kept me hoping.”
When watching Revolutionary Road, a line by Julie Delpy’s character in a scene from the modern-day Before Sunset seemed to echo the situation of Frank and April. While the latter film is more light-hearted and witty in its poignancy, it too is layered with feelings of regret and quiet despair, reinforcing that the struggles people face are not made any different by decades of time. In a burst of honesty, Delpy’s character confides that being alone is better than being beside a lover and feeling lonely. That is a sentiment to which Frank and April could easily attest. To grasp this film is to understand that two people can feel most alone when they are together. Revolutionary Road is a portrait of a couple who feel so deeply isolated and who grow so numb, that the only time they feel alive is when they are yelling their resentment and bitterness toward each other.
Dicaprio and Winslet work perfectly together here. Dicaprio is a man buried in layers of guilt and anguish. His performance reveals a deep anxiety in trying desperately to be the man his wife wants on one hand and his own pride and resentment toward April on the other. April wants Frank to “find himself” but the trouble is that Frank already knows who he is. He is a man who has conformed to responsibility and run out of dreams and he resents April for making him confront that. Winslet’s performance is equally stunning, the mood swings of her character range from devastating rage to polite numbness but whatever mood, her whole performance aches with desperation. The support cast is also excellent. Special mention should be given to Michael Shannon who plays the mentally ill son of the Wheeler’s realtor (Kathy Bates) and steals both shattering scenes he is in. He sees right through the artifice and brutally spits the truth at April and Frank, adding to the claustrophobia of the world they live in, where the only person capable of speaking the truth is someone deemed insane.
Sometimes watching Revolutionary Road feels like a study in dissection of two unlikeable characters and their imploding marriage but the superb performances of both actors allow us to feel empathy for April and Frank even when they’re at their most selfish. But perhaps it is something more than empathy we’re feeling, perhaps among the melodrama and the madness is a recognition of our own flaws and fears.