Sunday, February 1, 2009
They Can’t Handle the Truth: Revolutionary Road
Hyped as the film that brings back together again Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road is in danger of being remembered for a different reunion of Best Picture Oscar ingredients. It has hardly gone unnoticed, nor should it, that this adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel takes a tale of suburban depression and disenfranchisement and puts it into the hands of director Sam Mendes, whose American Beauty eviscerates the unspoken agony of Pleasantville-living. So let’s get this out of the way from the start: Revolutionary Road is no more about the suburbs than Casablanca is about a city in Morocco. Oh, sure, the setting counts. The quaint street where April and Frank Wheeler discover their malaise is as much a character in this film as is the pit of corruption, hope and shattered dreams that is Rick’s Café in Casablanca. But to conclude that Mendes’ latest film is a condemnation of suburbia is to miss the point.
Revolutionary Road is a conviction of the Wheelers. Their crime? Denial. Yes, Mendes’ film, from a screenplay by Justin Haythe, makes good on opportunities to mock suburban living, but this is mere decoration, like the tiny plants Kathy Bates’ matriarchic Helen gives to Winslet’s April to fill in the “messy patch” at the end of the driveway. Suburbia doesn’t make the Wheelers miserable. Instead suburbia is the mirror by which they recognize their long-denied unhappiness. Characters turning 30, April and Frank are for the first time realizing that they have emotional wrinkles. As much as anything, Revolutionary Road is about that transitional period of life when your identity stops being about what you are “going to be” and starts being about what you “are.” When April, having pulled trashcans to the curb, stands at the end of the family driveway and looks up and down the street, she sees not just the numbing suburban homogeny of the 1950s but also a lack of opportunity. Revolutionary Road is a path to more of the same. The only way April’s life can evolve is if she forces the process.
Which is precisely what she does. A good 30 minutes of the film are dedicated to April’s proposed family escape to Paris. She’ll work; DiCaprio’s Frank will find himself; and together they’ll be happy, less because Paris is a utopian paradise (though uncultured April thinks it is) than because they’re doing something new and yet familiarly exhilarating: chasing a youthful dream. Revolutionary Road is ultimately about how all this empty dreaming produces agony – the Wheelers are a bickering couple when we meet them, and before we leave them they devolve into hatred-spewing monsters – but the pain of their crash landing is directly attributable to the grace with which the Wheelers’ hopeful Paris vision is allowed to soar.
Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the team of Winslet and DiCaprio produce some of the film’s best moments here: Frank’s cat-who-ate-the-canary surveillance of the hustle and bustle of Grand Central Station; April’s radiant strut down the sidewalk after booking passage to Europe; the evening with Shep (David Harbour) and Milly (Kathryn Hahn) in which the dismay of friends only emboldens the Wheelers’ confidence. One can know that the Wheelers are headed toward an emotional apocalypse, but during this cloudless portion of the film the storms ahead are impossible to foresee. This juxtaposition is crucial, and it’s the reason that Revolutionary Road separates itself from your run-of-the-mill grim art-house fare. Momentarily, these characters feel as if they actually have something to lose. Their potential to be special is just that, potential, but it’s enough to make us think that maybe, just maybe, the neighbors aren’t wrong to put the Wheelers on a pedestal.
Instead, all this potential comes tumbling down, and what’s never made clear is whether the Wheelers were deluding themselves all along or were indeed this close to liberation. This isn’t a complaint. Even the Wheelers don’t know the truth. To use the word that instantly recalls The Shawshank Redemption, the Wheelers have become institutionalized. Frank is like Brooks the librarian, so resigned to his prison cell that he panics when he gets an opportunity to leave it. April is like Andy Dufresne, refusing to give up hope. In this case, however, the desperate attempt at freedom ends with further imprisonment. By the end of the film, April’s verve has been completely obliterated.
For this, it would be easy to blame Frank, who is cowardly, dishonest and too slick for his own good. But April is equally naïve, and long before Frank told her that he wanted to go back to Paris, he admitted that he had no clue what he wanted to do with his life. It shows. DiCaprio’s performance is a marvel. He manages to let Winslet’s April maintain the spotlight without ever holding back. If Winslet, delivering perhaps the best performance of her impressive career, is the lever that lifts Revolutionary Road to greatness, DiCaprio is the fulcrum – essential and all too easy to overlook. Not that Deakins could make such a mistake. His slow-zooming camera adores the face of DiCaprio’s Frank: ashamed in front of his children; euphoric in Grand Central Station; and fearful across the lunch table from his potential new boss. In these moments, DiCaprio is nearly motionless. Later, however, as Frank becomes entirely unhinged with emasculated rage, DiCaprio pairs pathetic weakness and frightening ruthlessness with an in-your-face bluntness that few other actors could match.
Still, this is Winslet’s film from the moment we first lay eyes on April, ashamed on stage in a community performance she will forever remember for shattering her aspirations of becoming an actress. As the stereotypical closeted housewife of the 50s, April makes for an easy sympathetic figure, but that’s not all that she is. If this isn’t the best performance by an actress in a leading role this year, it’s at least the most impressive realization of a truly multidimensional female character. To Winslet’s credit, April’s optimism is as visceral as her desperation, her blind devotion to Frank is as convincing as her eventual vengeful betrayal of her husband and her guilt over not finding complete fulfillment through motherhood is as heartbreaking as her lonely domestic imprisonment. On top of all this, Winslet takes everything DiCaprio can throw at her without ever falling out of the frame. Simply put, she’s extraordinary. DiCaprio, too.
These actors have come a long way in just over a decade. The previous time Winslet and DiCaprio shared the screen, they had to compete for our attention with James Cameron’s multi-million-dollar prop. Not anymore. This time around, it’s the Wheelers who are upending and sliding into an icy abyss, and the scene compositions of Mendes and Deakins appropriately reflect the character study. In the final act, Mendes allows the drama to get a little too stagy – in part due to a Michael Shannon supporting turn that wows upon arrival before overstaying its welcome – but with Winslet and DiCaprio in the spotlight it’s hard to blame him for standing back and admiring the view. More than a decade after they became overnight mega-stars, Revolutionary Road reveals Winslet and DiCaprio to be two of the greatest talents in the business. And it’s interesting to wonder: had Titanic turned out to be the pinnacle of their careers, might Kate and Leo today be filled with the doubt that ravages April and Frank? Maybe. As Revolutionary Road makes clear, worse than not being special is believing incorrectly that you are.