Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

16Sep11

Kate Winslet (April Wheeler), Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Wheeler), Michael Shannon (John Givings), Kathy Bates (Mrs. Givings). Screenplay by Justin Haythe. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rating: 15. Running time: 119 minutes.

If you approach Revolutionary Road in the wrong mood it could go down very badly indeed. First there’s the romantic atmosphere, involving you naively suggesting to your partner you both get comfy and watch the new Kate & Leo film over a glass of wine and olives, unaware you’ll be opening your front door to a mood-crushing depression-fest worthy of Iñárritu, if that gloomy guy was more inclined to direct relationship breakdowns. Even worse than this, though, would be pressing play in a frame of mind dosed with a sense of objectivity, aware of the real traumas out there in the world. If you read the newspaper this morning, you’re likely to be thinking about Somalian famines and freedom fighters being shot in Syria. Then you switch to this, and you see two bourgeois married Americans, both as gorgeous as one another with a luxurious house and kids, acting as if their lives are as close to hell as it gets.

Yes, the troubles of April and Frank Wheeler could nowadays go down in tongue-in-cheek tweets ending with the guilt-laden hashtag of #firstworldproblems. You’re going to have to forget about all that global context stuff if you want to ride this empathy train – and of course, if you’re in a loving mood, you definitely don’t want to. But I do think that, with the help of such a classic novel laying the groundwork for the screenplay, a score as haunting as Tom Newman’s and an onscreen team as talented as this, getting into Revolutionary Road is quite easily done. I’ve seen it four times now, and I can still feel, like the Wheelers, that despite their lives being immaculate on paper, in reality there’s something quite wrong with their existence. Despite all the money and tranquility  (in a word – security) in the world, it just seems that happiness needs more flair than this.

The problem is simply that they think too much. If they weren’t so forward-looking then they would be perfectly content with their situation. Yet they would also, in losing that vision, resign themselves to walking through life blind, and, in the words of that Pink Floyd masterpiece, one day they’d find ten years had got behind them / noone had told them when to run / they’d missed the starting gun.

For all their idealism and young dreams (that we see, incidentally, only in flashback, and in some of the only poor lines in the film. Most of the dialogue set in the present is brutally good, but Kate can’t quite get away with saying ‘Frank Wheeler, you might just be one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,’ and Leo can’t stress ‘you know April, I want to feel things… really, feel things,’ without us cringing as our pomposity-sirens start bleeping on overdrive), the conformity they criticise is precisely what they end up constituting. They yearn for the Parisian life, or even just New York again, but both know they sold out when they settled for suburban Connecticut. When we watch Frank go to work he may have DiCaprio’s face, but he looks so boringly normal that we barely spot him amongst all the other men hopping off at a 1950s sun-kissed Grand Central. He grew up despising his father’s lifestyle, but ended up settling for a job in the exact same mundane office block. It’s only a matter of time, then, until the implicit tension explodes, and to say this is to describe the film in a sentence.

It’s all undeniably and terribly bleak, but to get too obsessed with sticking this label on it and waving goodbye is, I think, a bad but all too usual and also revealing reaction. The number of people who laughed in the cinema when I first saw this at the most awkward but painful of moments was startling, as was the number who seemed to dismiss it as worthless on the grounds that it was depressing. I wonder why people react this way but would never dream of doing so when watching, for instance, Schindler’s List. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in us feeling comfortable being moved by tragedy when it’s doubly distant: namely, in a film, and also about something entirely detached. The problem with Revolutionary Road is that by only supporting the former barrier, by showing married life and unhappiness, it threatens to at times resonate to a disturbing degree. We don’t want to see ourselves as trapped like April; we don’t want to identify in any way with Frank, bursting with both tears and anger. But, like Sam Mendes, I’m inclined to think that after 50 years too many people still sadly are this way. Becoming social as opposed to savage might have ensured we live with ambition, but all too often the end result can be the sadness and alienation of the Wheelers: good dreams thwarted, and gone drastically wrong.

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One Response to “Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)”

  1. 1 Munz

    LOVE this film. I wish you mentioned the subtext more, and the relevance of the time and place of the film. Post-war 1950s America was the rebirth of the American Dream, which plays so so heavy in this film. Frank and April, the perfect couple, never satisfied in the moment and always reaching for something more, which was common during that post-war era. “Settling for suburban life” wasn’t just a fail safe but something they both wanted–and many families fell into that want at the time because of that word you mentioned: security. The suburbs represented comfort and stability, while the city was sinful and glamorous. The whole film is about the battle between that American Dream and our insatiable human desire to be different.

    I’m surprised you made no mention of the importance of Michael Shannon’s character and this quintessential scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I-56Xyr0Bw No one likes their own fears confirmed, no one wants their American Dream shattered. And that wonderful line “You know what I’m glad about? I’m glad I’m not gonna be that kid.”

    Not crapping on your review by any means, but there’s just so much more to this amazing film than the bickering between Frank and April.


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