Revolutionary Road is the American Dream awakened by a horrific nightmare. Based on the 1961 Richard Yates novel about a 1950’s marriage rotting in the ‘burbs, the raw and riveting film hits you where it hurts. The novel tracks the unraveling of Frank and April Wheeler. This handsome young couple have been trying and failing to keep disappointment at bay by pretending that they are not like everyone else — despite their suburban address, their two children, a life calibrated to the commuter rail schedule, a well-stocked bar, and picture window that overlooks a manicured front lawn.
The Wheelers –played by Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet — are blinded into believing life together will fulfill all their fantasies. The problem is, they have no fantasies. With a baby on the way, they move from Manhattan to the suburbs — promising themselves it’s all just temporary. They are crippled by their own acute self-consciousness and their sense that they are superior to the excruciating staleness they fall into. They have yearnings — a hunger for something more than a weary trek into middle age. Frank joins the morning march of men in suits and hats out of Grand Central, and into jobs where “executives” do meaningless work all around. In Frank’s case he may as well be an office machine. April suggests he just quit his job in order to move to Paris. She can work for the American Embassy, and he can figure out what he really wants to do.
The couple doesn’t have much sympathy for each other, and Yates has next to none. By the time his sad book reaches its terrible climax, the emotion you will probably feel most acutely is pity for the Wheelers. Nothing much happens in the story, just two ordinary lives coming apart at the seams. The film begins with a disastrous community theater production of “The Petrified Forest” in which April has the lead role. The play is a flop, but instead of shrugging it off as do their neighbors Milly and Shep (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), the Wheelers embrace their humiliation and failure. They drink it in and start hurling insults at one another, turning the modest embarrassment into an affirmation of their mutual loathing and contempt of one another.
As things continue to fall apart, Frank briefly turns into the arms of anther woman (Zoe Kazan). There’s a short reprieve when Frank and April eventually decide to pack up the kids and move to Paris. In April’s mind, Frank will be able to find himself and become the man she desperately wants him to be. Paris will be their way out of their white house on a hillside on that cruelly named street, Revolutionary Road.
As both continue to prepare for the move, Frank is suddenly offered a promotion and raise. He has no choice but to take it, right? He’ll still be miserable, but better paid. In hard times it sounds necessary, but maybe all times are hard when you hate your life. April and Frank have a ferocious fight about his obvious decision. The audience begins to realize April was motivated by her own needs. In her mind, it’s better to support Frank in Paris with a job where she might meet people more interesting than their carbon-copy neighbors and the “real estate lady” Helen (Kathy Bates). Helen tentatively requests if she can bring her son, John (Michael Shannon) over for a meal.
John is in a mental institution. In Helen’s point of view, perhaps some time with a nice, normal couple will do him some good. Home on a visit, he spits the truth at Frank and April. Playing the role like a heat-seeking missile that targets hypocrisy, the volcanic Shannon is tremendous. With cruel words and merciless observations, he chops right through their façade and mocks their very delusions.
Shannon strips away their denials and see them clearly, for exactly who they are. DiCaprio and Winslet are so good in this film. They stop being actors and become the very people of that time. They smoke too much, similar to Mad Men, but everyone smoked everywhere in the 1950’s. And drinking? Every ad executive would head to a bar during lunchtime to prove the maxim: One martini is just fine, two are too many, but three is not enough. DiCaprio is able to show you his fears of failure and success, mixing it with his vanity. He has a wide, panicked face further illustrating what a dreamer without a dream looks like. He brings layers of buried emotion to a defeated man. Ms. Winslet is astonishing as April, who comes across as a noble sufferer.
Directed with extraordinary skill by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), coupled with the Yates-faithful script by Justin Haythe, the film is a tough road well worth traveling. Camera genius and now Academy Award winning cinematographer Roger Deakins lights the “hopeless emptiness” on view with precise beauty. The movie takes a piece out of you. Revolutionary Road is so good, it’s devastating.
Image Source: IMDb