Revolutionary Road

revolutionaryroadposterstarring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Michael Shannon
written by Richard Yates and Justin Haythe & directed by Sam Mendes
Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

Once upon a time, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) met at a party, fell in love, and got married. Now, seven years and two kids later, the Wheelers are living in a suburb in 1950s America, and (as everyone knows) that means they are leading lives of quiet desperation. However, April has an escape plan. The couple has some money set aside, and it seems that the French government pays its secretaries excellent salaries. In order to escape the banality of their present existence, Frank will quit the job that he hates and the family will move to Paris, where April will work to support them and Frank will finally have a chance to discover what he truly wants to do with his life. No sooner has the plan been set into motion, however, than unexpected problems begin to rise and block their way.

In 1999, Sam Mendes directed American Beauty, a story of a joyless drone living in suburbia who wakes up one day and starts to live for himself, at his family’s expense, only to discover (almost too late) that the secret to genuine joie de vivre has a lot more to do with loving others than loving yourself. Then, in 2006, Kate Winslet starred in Little Children, a story of a young mother and a young father, also leading unhappy lives in suburbia, who meet while pushing their children on the swings at the playground. They, too, eventually begin to live for themselves, to the detriment of their families, before being unexpectedly jolted back into fulfilling their marital and parental responsibilities as adults. I love both movies (though I have oversimplified them a bit here) for their great artistic beauty, powerful storytelling, and redemptive themes. Now, Mendes directs Winslet (the two are married) in a story about marital infidelity, living for self, and suburban malaise. Strangely enough, the result left me completely cold.

There is no technical reason why this should be so. Winslet is one of my favorite actresses (although here she seems to have trouble humanizing a somewhat inaccessible character), and DiCaprio is very good when, as here, he has been cast appropriately. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as haunting and beautiful as always, and the film is underlined with a lovely score by Thomas Newman (my favorite composer of the moment), who also scored American Beauty and Little Children. I have no specific criticisms to offer, beyond a vague sense of discomfort and unease that lasted from the moment the film began until after the credits had ended. What is Revolutionary Road trying to say, and why?

I would like to draw attention to two performances that may be able to help me express my problem. First, of course, there is Michael Shannon, whose brief but attention-grabbing part as John Givings has earned him an Oscar nomination. Shannon is good, and I don’t want to run down his performance in any way, but the part is a showy one which doesn’t require a great deal of subtlety. Givings is a mathematician who has suffered some sort of mental collapse and has been institutionalized. We are not told precisely what his trouble is, but it is hinted that there may be nothing the matter with him; that the problem may belong to everyone around him.

Givings is the only character who is free to speak the truth and shatter the layers of self-deception, thick and thin, which coat the perceptions of the other characters. In fact, he is not so much a character as a plot device; a loud and bitter force of nature who verbalizes what everyone else is afraid to say, or even think. He is helpful (to the audience), and his violent outbursts are satisfying amidst the sterile civility around him, but he is not terribly interesting.

David Harbour’s portrayal of Shep Campbell stands as a stark contrast to Givings. Campbell is the Wheeler’s next-door neighbor, and their are deep, deep layers to him that we never catch more than a glimpse of on his face. I felt that he was the most real, and most interesting, character in the film. If we could have spent more time with him, he might have had the most to say. But he is a footnote in the Wheeler’s story; a story which, unfortunately, is not all that compelling.

The Wheelers seemingly exist to illustrate the consequences of settling for bland mediocrity instead of pursuing one’s dreams, but neither of them seems to have any real dreams of their own beyond the vague ambition to move to Paris, as though that alone will bring their lives meaning. Frank has not given up on what he wanted to do with his life, because he never knew what that was. April, who has never even been to Paris, seems to have given up the desire to act, not because circumstances have prevented her, but because she just isn’t very good.

Most of the movie is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. One braces for the impact long before the vehicles collide, and then cringes at the screeching of metal, breaking of glass, and shattering of emotional bone. The exercise feels all the more empty in light of all of the opportunities to avoid disaster that the characters are afforded. Instead, they steer steadily and deliberately and almost knowingly towards disaster, as though they wanted to end badly in order to prove some still-obscure point. Or maybe the point isn’t obscure at all. Maybe it is so crushingly obvious that I am ignoring it in the vain hope that Revolutionary Road has something meaningful and profound to say.

~ by Jared on January 23, 2009.

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