As a matter of personal preference, I try to avoid any and all information about a film before I head in to see it. Obviously there’s cases where I’m a huge fan of a filmmaker and follow the project along in its many stages, and other times where information about a film simply cannot be avoided. Other than that, I do my best to avoid pre-film jabber the best I can. In the case of Sam Mendes’s latest “Revolutionary Road,” I was glad I knew nothing of it going in. Had I watched the trailers or read early opinions, I may have been expecting a certain type of over-dramatic pandering-to-award-season film rather than letting this gem of a film spread out before my eyes.
Based on the much loved yet somewhat little known Richard Yates book of the same name, “Revolutionary Road” tells the story of the Wheeler family, a fairly typical suburban family living in upstate Connecticut in 1955. Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) works long hours doing God knows what for an office machine company where seemingly every person working there gets by on two-martini lunches and a pack a day. His beautiful wife April (Winslet) takes care of the obligatory two kid household at the couples darling suburban sprawl on Revolutionary Road. But as is the case for any person with a pulse, the golden handcuffs of a steady income and a family to take care of cinch tighter with each miserable, despairing day in color coordinated homestead hell. While Frank and April play the part of the happy couple, beneath the surface, both are desperate to actually live their lives.
April hatches a very feasible plan in which the couple could be happy once again and quickly Frank jumps on-board. But as is the case with any dream that goes against the grain of what society expects, the longer the couple waits to hatch their plan, the more it falls apart. Think about that great movie or screenplay idea you had and how excited you were by the prospect. Then think about how day by day, hour by hour “real life” or friends calling you crazy got in the way and quashed out your spark. If you know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand all too well what’s happening as the wheels fall of for the aptly named Wheelers.
“Revolutionary Road” is melodrama of the highest order. In fact the in-fighting, outbursts, unrequited desires and bouts of crying coupled with the late 50’s era could very easily make this film an homage to Douglas Sirk. Yet director Sam Mendes hearkens back to his “American Beauty” debut once again using a steady hand to show the ugly cracks in the facade of familial life in the ‘burbs. As with his first two films (we won’t talk about “Jarhead” here…or ever) Mendes manages to take the comforts of home and turn them claustrophobic. Chairs and couches feel like slap dashed mazes around a house full of dead ends. Every light through a window is either too harsh or causes a doom filled shadow reminiscent of bars on a jail cell. It’s an almost haunted playground and in it DiCaprio and Winslet drag each other through the mud, wanting more than the other person can offer. Not only are these two outstanding in the film, the supporting cast supplies the gas that gets thrown on the fire.
Busy-body realtor neighbor Mrs. Givings (Bates) is always sticking her nose into the Wheelers business as neighbors Millie and Shep Campbell try to keep up with the Jones’s. These folks are a mere nuisance. The s**t really hits the fan when Mrs. Giving’s brings her insane asylum resident son John (Shannon) by for some home cooking. “Revolutionary Road” moves at a fairly languid pace but when John enters the home he injects life and urgency into the Wheelers and their plans. John makes the Wheelers dreams seem tangible and when those dreams falter, John is highly offended. While his scenes are limited, Michael Shannon damn near steals the show as a supposedly crazy man whose only real issue seems to be the lack of a mute button. In a world where politeness is favored above all else, the truth can really hurt.
Admittedly I couldn’t escape the fact that “Revolutionary Road” seems like a really, really good episode of “Mad Men.” There’s smoking, drinking, cheating and like the excellent TV show, the lure of a bigger better deal always rules the day. But the film differs in many ways once you get beyond surface appearances. A huge difference is the way each lead character really articulates their desires or acts out in a way that the audience can relate to, at least in terms of the action. It’s the inability to ask for, receive or be granted what they need that sets these characters in motion and ups the intensity level making “Revolutionary Road” an unforgettable film and one of the years best.