Revolutionary Road (2008) dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates
Sam Mendes’ reteaming of the Titanic bunch – Kate and Leo – has resulted in a sometimes inspired sometimes overworked tragedy about the disillusionment of a marriage.
The idea of filming a 48 year old novel which skewers the soullessness of suburban conformity seemed way out of date. Old news really. Why go to a place where so many filmmakers have gone to before? But Richard Yates 1962 prize-winning novel seemed to be the literary high mark on the subject, and so maybe the team commanded by the master of literary adaptations Scott ‘Superproducer’ Rudin could turn this into the definitive film on the subject.
It’s the 1950’s in an unnamed suburban town. Frank and April Wheeler are married with two kids – a bickering couple who can break into a screaming match of hateful words in an instant. Both April and Frank seem to hate their saccharine existence – Frank commuting to his soul-sucking desk job every day and April tending to her two kids like what is expected of her. Its April who takes the initiative to find a solution and mend their marriage. She proposes to relocate to Paris and start a new life. The plans reinvigorate the couple and everything seems on the right track.
Despite the shocked reactions of their friends the Wheelers are resolute in their plans. But slowly events transpire which challenge the ability to keep their plans afloat and thus their marriage.
Though Kate and Leo share equal billing, it’s Kate’s film. April is the driving engine of the action. We empathize with her predicament and understand how the emotional tightrope she’s walking can suddenly cause the outbursts of anger and tears. Their situations are accessible to any married couple. How do you keep both people happy in a relationship with so many expectations attached to it? Occasional melodramatic contrivances in the first half are easily overlooked because we desperately want the Wheelers to be happy and achieve their goals. But with so much working against them the tension becomes palpable and intense.
The film goes from good to great when Michael Shannon enters the film. For those who don’t know Michael Shannon, you should. He’s one of the finest character actors working today. His work on indies “Bug” and “Shotgun Stories” is near legendary. Shannon plays John, the insane son of April’s neighbours. In a couple of powerful scenes John manages to read the dynamic of the couple with pinpoint accuracy and expose the subterfuge which clouds their relationship. Shannon’s performance is simply phenomenal.
Unfortunately the film drowns itself under a number of show-off scenes of shouting and angry destructive behaviour from Di Caprio. Leo’s showcase scene of fury in the third act lacks any truth or believability. It reeks of a ‘movie scene’ – written and performed not out of truth of character but of the needs for heightened drama. The film never recovers and settles into a predictable and over-stylized finale.
Which brings us back to Yates’ original novel (which I haven’t read). Call me crazy, but wouldn’t this film be much more powerful if told in the present? The politics and culture of the 50’s do not affect the dynamic of April and Frank’s relationship. The conundrums and conflicts faced by April and Frank are the same ones many couples face today. And so setting the film over 50 years ago distances us from the pain.
As the film unraveled I kept thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” which stayed truthful to its characters and never went outside of it’s own reality. “Revolutionary Road” comes to close to honesty but in the end comes off as entertaining fakery. Enjoy.