Some movies have such a powerful, heartbreaking intensity that you only need to see them once. They don’t grab you by the shirt; they grip you body and soul. ”Revolutionary Road,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” is one of these movies if you haven’t already figured that out. In 2008, it was plagued with what I like to call the curse of the Oscar frontrunner – predestination for incredible levels of greatness that it couldn’t possibly live up to its hype. But now with that season firmly behind us, we can now see it for its incredible capacity to captivate and move us.
Sam Mendes has a particular knack at peeling back societal façades of contentment and revealing the dark underbelly of suburban society, first with “American Beauty” and then with this adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about the 1950s. Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are a typical couple – meeting after the war, they have big dreams and aspirations. Yet Frank winds up taking a miserable desk job at his father’s company and moves them out to Connecticut when April gets pregnant. A few years later, he has almost disappeared into a grey flannel suit and she into an apron.
However, neither can shake the idea that they have bought into an empty illusion, that there has to be more to life than to be just like everyone else. Roger Deakins’ haunting cinematography emphasizes their Stepfordian conformity and echoes the story’s implication that they are trapped not only in this house but in this life. However, April refuses to dismiss what Betty Freidan called “the problem with no name” in her manifesto “The Feminine Mystique,” proposing that the family move to Paris to reclaim their livelihoods. While she brings in the money in a secretarial position, Frank would be able to relax and discover what truly makes him happy.
They start to go through with the plan, and for a moment, this ideal setup revives a failing marriage. Even in spite of protests by friends and neighbors left aghast, particularly realtor Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) and their best friends the Campbells (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour), they keep their heads held high. In fact, the only person who seems to see their logic and rationale is John Givings (Michael Shannon), Mrs. Givings’ brilliant but possibly mentally ill son who has the best perspective on the times of anyone.
Nevertheless, the idea becomes just an idea, no longer a plan of action, leaving an embittered Frank and April to confront their problems with a pugnacious brutality. In their arguments, Mendes and scribe Justin Haythe fully accomplish Yates’ goal of indicting the glorified hollowness of the 1950s. While “Revolutionary Road” is beautifully written and directed, the film’s aims are best achieved through the tour de force performances by DiCaprio, Winslet, and Shannon. As first the paradigm of suburban contentment and then its victims, the Wheelers truly needed to be personified by two actors who can fully realize the tragedy. It just so happened to play out that these two people are world-famous star-crossed lovers thanks to James Cameron’s “Titanic.”
This may very well be the best work in the diamond-crusted careers of both DiCaprio and Winslet, which is saying a lot. The fact that neither of them received Oscar nominations for the movie is absolutely criminal, although lack of awards recognition should hardly be the ultimate judge of their performances. They both perfectly calibrate every scene, every emotion, every last movement so that it resonates with a scarily beautiful ring. Kate Winslet is particularly striking as the active wife defying stereotype and lashing out against the image of the perfect housewife, making her final act devastatingly crushing. And with powerhouse Michael Shannon as the mouthpiece for Yates and the Wheeler’s foil, the acting of “Revolutionary Road” is what drives that fist of furious emotion right into the gut.
For that very reason, I must warn you that this movie is not for the faint of heart. Its mind-boggling emotional power doesn’t end when the credits roll; it may linger in the form of a depressing mood or a bleak outlook on life for anywhere from 1-3 days. But don’t let that keep you from missing one of the best movies of 2008, and for my money, one of the most formidable films on society in recent memory. You need only see it once to achieve the full effect – although if you want to see it twice like me, it’s still phenomenal.