It’s always a little weird when a film appears to be speaking directly to you, especially when it comes out and tells you things you’ve been trying hard to ignore.
Sam Mendes doesn’t direct a ton of movies. His first cinematic release was American Beauty, you know, that little film that tapped Hollywood on the shoulder, swiveled it around, and ordered it to take notice (you thought I was going to say “punched it in the face” didn’t you? Well, you lose!!). Ten years and a couple of solid releases later, beautiful, agonizing Revolutionary Road doesn’t quite change the face of filmmaking, but it does demonstrate that Mendes has honed his craft to almost* a razor’s edge. Oh and also that he is creepily able to see directly into my soul??**
Revolutionary Road isn’t about April and Frank Wheeler — it’s about you, me, our parents…anyone who knew with absolute certainty that their lives would surely distinguish themselves from the sea of identical ones in which it appears (surely just “appears”!) to be sinking. Besides a few seconds of back story (Frank had been in the war, the two met at a party), we are dropped into a life that is so far out in those waters that it is losing its glimpse of the shore. We aren’t permitted much knowledge of how Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) got from point A to point B (although of course one would assume it was on a famously ill-fated transatlantic voyage), but it doesn’t really matter. In fact, distracting details would only obstruct our view and hinder our ability to relate to this couple who, after having a couple of kids, find themselves surprisingly rooted in a life they never expected — empty, meaningless suburbia.
Frank is a commuting office worker (his job is never clearly explained to us) who has failed to be different from his father, and April is a housewife and mother who has failed to be different from…well, a housewife and mother. They’ve been taking out their frustration and disappointment on each other for awhile by the time we meet them, but one wonderful day, the two begin to see things clearly and realize they must reject complacency now and begin to really live the way they always thought they would before they become so firmly entrenched in the lives they hate, unable to move one foot in any direction. They decide to go to Paris, as they used to dream about doing. It’s not too late, the kids are still young, and the horrified reactions on their friends’ faces when they hear the news only strengthens their resolve to break free from this “ridiculous delusion.” But what’s the real delusion, here, the film asks you. This repetitive facsimile of a life or a conviction that we can escape it? Little by little, the Wheelers’ revolutionary plan to get off Revolutionary Road breaks into pieces, and it begins to dawn on them that the “ridiculous delusion” is in fact a ridiculous reality, and it’s settled into their living room, kicked off its shoes, and shows no signs of vacating. Ever.
Luckily, their relationship is rock solid, and their initially weak hopes that they can “find happiness here” blossom into utter contentment, and everyone eats pancakes for breakfast every day. Psych! But I’m convinced that doesn’t mean that contentment is impossible; we just have to be willing to work at it, because if you just go with the flow, the flow will take you where it takes everyone else.
One of her closest friends at some point tries vainly to relate to April during some internal stuff she’s clearly dealing with, and says, “You just wanted out.” She looks at him, stunned, and corrects him. “I just wanted in!” And it’s at this point that she starts to really grasp the reality of her situation. Even the people closest to her have truly begun to believe that Revolutionary Road is the center of the universe, when in fact they exist so far outside of the universe that they’re not even aware of it anymore.
There are people who are cool with this, and people who are not. To the latter, Revolutionary Road doesn’t come off nearly as depressing as it seems it would. Instead, to me at least, it’s a cautionary tale. It inspires you to keep your eyes open and pay close attention to any of those nagging, small voices that it’s so much easier to ignore.
*I couldn’t find a space amid the above gushing glowingness, but I do need to point out some real flaws that prevent this movie from being perfect: a pointless, elementary epilogue that should have been deleted immediately (and one wonders if it was a studio decision, not a directorial one) and a score by Thomas Newman that sounds almost identical to his American Beauty score in 1998 and is used in the film the exact same way. Some nice discordant tones would have gone a long way, here.
**The performances by Winslet and DiCaprio (and Kathy Bates, who, interestingly enough, was also on that ill-fated cruise ship, if you’ll remember) are so far beyond strong that they could be safely called “haunting” and “Streepy.” Plus, if you would like to see examples of excellent lighting and framing and editing and symbolism and all that, just see it. See it!