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.

24 comments:

Edward Copeland said...

Great review --and not just because I agree wholeheartedly with it. It seems that so many of the film's critics have missed the essential point that the suburban setting is incidental and let Mendes' previous work on American Beauty color their opinion of this one. Lately, I've felt as if I've been the film's sole defender, especially when people try to argue that Winslet is better in The Reader. Granted, she is good there as well, but that entire film is so calculated, that it can't help but affect her work while her performance in Revolutionary Road is a wonder.

hokahey said...

I loved your analysis of this film - and it is reassuring that it is along the lines of my take on this film. I find April to be the central character. Nevertheless, DiCaprio's performance is just as dynamic as Winslet's

I was flabbergasted that Winslet was nominated for "The Reader" and snubbed for "Road." This is a powerful film about a married couple battling each other as they battle inner forces. "The Reader" - a film about German guilt for the Holocaust - is weak in comparison.

I liked how you pointed out some of the visual aspects of this film. I think the cinematography was a major strength here.

Jason Bellamy said...

EC & Hokahey: There's really no comparison between Winslet's performances here and in "The Reader," or between the films for that matter. Winslet is fantastic in "Revolutionary Road." In "The Reader" she's fine. But just that. Of course, for Oscar purposes if you don't put on a ton of makeup at some point, you're not acting.

I've seen actors get their Oscar just due for the wrong movies before, but never in the same year in which the "right" performance was right there to be honored.

Mark said...

Another brilliant review -- one of your best, and that's saying something.

Like Edward and hokahey I might appreciate your analysis in part because I agree with it. But also I'm very impressed, again, by your smooth and engaging writing. You have a nice way of bringing images together to make your point, ie: "This time around, it’s the Wheelers who are upending and sliding into an icy abyss."

I'm stunned that this movie hasn't received more props. It's one of my favorites of the year.

Allison said...

That was really interesting. I have been wanting to see the movie since it came out. However, Laef has banned it because of our upcoming wedding. He does not think I need to see it. ;)

Campaspe said...

What Edward Said. Excellent review. Thanks for re-emphasizing what seems to have been missed by a large number of reviewers, that the movie isn't merely some swipe at the suburbs. (For that matter, neither is the book.)

Andrew said...

Thank you, thank you. It's refreshing to see a review that correctly pinpoints the role of suburbia in this film. (Setting, yes. Motif, perhaps. Theme, no.) Revolutionary Road has its problems--the determination to use Yate's dialog verbatim leads to some teeth-gritting awfulness--but I'm hard pressed to imagine a bleaker, more painful portrait of a relationship gone gangrenous.

louisproyect said...

I can't agree that Shannon overdid it. I felt that his confrontation with DeCaprio was as crucial to the film's climax as that great scene in the end of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" when all the illusions finally are shattered.

Jason Bellamy said...

Louis: I realize I didn't get into in detail in the review, but my complaint isn't with Shannon's performance, it's with the employment of his character toward the very end.

Even if the confrontation with DiCaprio is the or a high note, Shannon's character does everything short of nailing his feet to the floor to keep from exiting the scene after that. It takes a grim, sickening scene and makes it close to camp. Not a wise emotional shift, considering the film goes right back to grim.

Captain Jack said...

There is a quote that sums up their conflict quite beautifully:

"You don't want to run away with me - you just want to run away."
-Rachel Menken

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved this film and think it is an absolute crime that Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet were NOT nominated for this movie because they truly give the best performances of the year. I found this movie more involving, more interesting and more deserving of awards attention. Thank goodness for the golden globes for recognizing it and I think if the Oscars returned to March, more people would discover this movie and it would have gotten more nominations especially best picture.

David said...

Leonardo Dicaprio shows more acting chops and Oscar worthy scenes in just one of his several scenes than any of the actors nominated. It is so frustrating that Kate Winslet is nominated for the wrong film when she is so good in Revolutionary Road. Good in the Reader -- performance of a lifetime in RR.

Jeremy said...

I loved Revolutionary Road and was shocked when I found out so many people I knew dismissed it as depressing and turgid. I don't know why, but bad marriages don't depress me. Thank you for pointing out once again why I loved this film so much when I saw it the first time.

Perry said...

Amen. Superb review of the best movie of the year.

PIPER said...

Jason,

I have not yet seen this and I have to admit it's been because it may just hit too close to home for me. That's not to say that I'm miserable in my life, not at all actually, but to me the purpose of this film is to challenge what we would deem "acceptable" lives. That we all live lives of quiet desperation. Man, I love when I can throw in a Thoreau quote.

I could be completely wrong in this, but I have to admit that your review makes me want to see it.

Fox said...

Jason-

We already we know we disagree, but, as usual, you do a great job here of arguing for the other side...

Here's something that popped out for me in your review:

"but it’s enough to make us think that maybe, just maybe, the neighbors aren’t wrong to put the Wheelers on a pedestal."

I think your correct in that that was what the actors and Mendes were going for, but I felt like I was getting mixed messages about the neighbors. Lines like, "but you're The Wheelers", and the way Mr. Campbell stares at their house from across the fence definitely show the idolatry, but there were moments with Mrs. Campbell that confused things. When she sobs on the bed, it's a moment of her not believing herself about how "crazy" their decision is, but she also comes off as a bit looney herself, reminding me of Allison Janney in American Beauty. Maybe I'm being nitpicky here, but...

We also see April in completely opposite ways. I didn't feel sympathetic towards her in the least, nor did I think she shows a "blind devotion" to Frank. April, to me, comes off as vindictive from the very beginning. Frank isn't much better, but I think he's clearly the more sympathetic character.

We do both agree on DiCaprio, however. I think he's excellent.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Yeah, the Allison Janney character. Not a high moment for “American Beauty.”

As for the crying neighbor: I first read those tears to be a sign that she identified with April as the imprisoned housewife and thus envied her planned escape. Thus, she and Shep try to convince one another that the Paris idea is crazy. The second time I saw the film, I read it differently: Perhaps the tears are in part because Milly takes the escape to Paris as a rejection of the kind of life she actually does enjoy. Because the Wheelers aren’t going to a new job, or to family or friends. They’re just saying: Anything is better than this (though that doesn’t mean that time would prove them wrong). And that’s essentially an insult to Milly.

Also: Yeah, I realize that all three couples in this movie seem to have some level of unhappy marriages. (Though the scene at the very end of the movie is one that people even in happy, healthy relationships could identify with.) So is this a condemnation of marriage? I guess it could be. Of course, the director of the film and one of the stars happen to be married, so that would seem odd. More specifically, I think it’s a condemnation perhaps of 1950s marriages. Building off a reference from your review, perhaps it could be argued that things changed in the 1950s, and that after decades of struggle just to get by, people finally had enough to enjoy life. And at that point, someone’s needs changed from pure survival to happiness.

In any case, the Wheelers aren’t unhappy because they are married. They are unhappy because their marriage is an illusion. If ever they were in it for the right reasons, they aren’t anymore. As for the blind devotion to Frank: I’m referencing the scenes early, when she falls in love with a guy who is all talk, and then the scene in the kitchen when their love is rekindled by the Paris trip. Again, at that point, Frank is still all talk. But April believes in his swagger. He’s never really proven anything. Yet she thinks he’s special. That’s what I was getting at.

sophomorecritic said...

I think that's an excellent point. It's the same reason why a TV star can't be popular in a film. If you can see him on TV for free, what's the point of paying $10 in a movie theater.

If Revolutionary Road's advocates want it to be a film that people see, they have to move far away from it's comparisons to Mad Men.

Also, you should check my blog out. i'm trying to get the word out there about it. maybe link to it?

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that this movie has been really underrated. Clearly one of the best and best acted flicks of this or many a year. The Academy totally and completely blew it here. DiCaprio is a revelation. That he wasn't nominated is just as bad as the fact that he got nominated for the wrong performance 2 years ago. Should have been nominated for The Departed. But that's nothing compared to what he brings to the table here. Great work. But, again, weird about the lack of nominations for the two stars.

Pat said...

Jason -

It's so refreshing to read a review by someone who "got it" completely and who appreciates what a great movie "Revolutionary Road" really is. We've already exchanged a lot of throughts over at Fox' comments thread, but I just had to come here and see what you had written. Nice work.

mB said...

I'll add voice to the chorus: Revolutionary Road ranks as one of my favorite films of 2008. So beautifully shot and superbly acted (trust Mendes to get such a talented team).

And you do really hit the nail here - everyone who sees this film and utterly dismisses it for its setting misses the point. I actually found your review via Fox and his line in his review about what immigrants must feel when watching the film immediately signaled the type of audience reaction that Rev Road never shoots for. Sadly, AMPAS and most of the critics didn't know what to do with this film but I'm glad to see more people saw and enjoyed the film as well.

4initalia said...

I am fascinated by the story of Revolutionary Road, because I am actually living the dream that lent a thrill of hope to April's otherwise hollow existence. What she wanted wasn't impossible, I'm doing it. I understand her desperation, and I understand that if you see your life in April's haunted eyes, you don't want to watch her writhe in agony, you can do that by looking in the rear view mirror on the way to work in the morning. That's why a lot of people didn't want to see the movie. If you have cancer, is it a comfort to watch other cancer patients suffer, or would you rather watch someone triumph over the disease? Having read the book in Italy, I am looking forward to seeing the movie, and reading the review and your comments will make watching a richer experience. Thanks for your insights.

Anonymous said...

I just watched this movie again and I truly can say that this is BRILLIANT REVIEW!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I watched this last night. I knew I liked it..may be because we all do relate to Aprils character at some point in our life. Many people think its sad and depressing. And I thought I was the only one to love it. This is an excellent review. You put altogether wat I had in mind with ease and style. Thank you.