Directed by Sam Mendes
By Doug Nayler
In an ideal world, films would be able to truly stand on their own merit. No comparison would even cross a viewer’s mind to anything that the actors, writers, or director had done previously. Nobody would be concerned about where a certain film stands in its genre’s canon. In this utopia, one would truly be able to approach everything with a fresh willingness to take it for exactly what it is. But, as we all know, this is absolutely not the case. The main reason any of us bother to check out a given film at all is because of the actors’ or director’s previous work, or hopes that it might be as good as a similar film that we’ve enjoyed. And so, like it or not, Revolutionary Road is inherently going to be compared to two highly successful, Oscar-reaping films of the 90’s: Titanic and American Beauty. The former because of the leads, and the latter because of its director, suburban setting, and subject matter. And I have a feeling that fans of the one are going to be in for quite a large shock, while fans of the other will be quite satisfied. I don’t know what someone who’s a fan of both films will feel, as I’ve yet to see evidence that such people exist in observable numbers.
Revolutionary Road, based on the popular novel by Richard Yates set in the 1950’s, takes an uncompromising look at the very troubled marriage of April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio). Though the two remember a time where they were happy at what the world would have to offer them, and content in their love, it seems a very long time ago. As April now cares for their lovely home and children and Frank commutes into Manhattan to work at the same insurance firm that his father had, both feel deeply unhappy. The two blame each other and vent their frustrations by trying to tear each other apart. They seem on a surefire course to implosion until one night, April suddenly comes up with an unconventional idea for where to lead their life next. The move injects a newfound excitement in their lives, though none of their friends or neighbours can possibly understand why. But, even as the Wheelers enjoy their newfound liberation, April can’t help but worry that it may all come crashing down before they can even see it realized.
If the setting and premise sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it is. Films like Far From Heaven, the TV series Mad Men, and the aforementioned American Beauty have explored the hollowness of the American dream in white suburbia before. In that sense, there isn’t anything especially new in the path Revolutionary Road treads. If one were to be especially cynical, they could even accuse Mendes of a return to his safety net after the lack of interest in his underrated Gulf War pic Jarhead. I am not so cynical. For, what Revolutionary Road lacks in originality of premise it easily makes up for in sheer intensity of performance.
One must suspect that Winslet and Di Caprio took a certain amount of perverse amusement in deciding to reunite for this film. While neither would deny that Titanic was the trampoline from which they shot into super-stardom (DiCaprio especially), it has most certainly become an albatross around the neck. Both are very serious, committed actors who have not wasted their subsequent ‘bankability’ often, generally pursuing roles that push them into new and uncharted waters. But by the same token, both must surely have had to endure much finger-wagging from disappointed studio executives expecting Titanic box office grosses that films like Little Children or The Beach just simply are not going to attract. Revolutionary Road is the anti-Titanic, eschewing all mythic, sentimental notions of the all-conquering power of love for just the sheer, naked reality of two people who are so unhappy but so emotionally intertwined that they can’t seem to find any way to make sense of it all.
And this is where the film truly triumphs. Di Caprio and Winslet are obviously extremely comfortable working together. Working with Mendes (Winslet’s husband) seems to have given them an environment so comfortable that they were able to push their performances into very intensely honest moments of an almost Cassevetes-like quality. There were moments in the film that are of the sort one so seldom sees on a film screen, or even in daily life itself. They are the type of moments that only exist between people with a relationship so intimate that their most childish thoughts and insecurities surface without any thought of repressing them. The effect is as if the viewer is actually watching a marriage crumbling before their very eyes, in its most intimate detail.
And it’s for that exact reason this film will be rejected by those most passionate Titanic fans who go out to see it. For instead of finding hope for a love they’ve only seen in movies, they’ll get life in all it’s ugly confusion. And there’s a very good chance that will be what they’re going to the movies to escape.