The last time director Sam Mendes explored middle class suburban culture it was in 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY. That film chronicled a profound midlife crisis of one man (Kevin Spacey) and the repressed desires of others (Annette Benning, Chris Cooper). Mendes returns to the picket fence with REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, a powerful drama about the repression of dreams, the stagnation of settling down and the self-imposed prisons we put ourselves in. One of these days, someone is going to make a movie about a suburban family that is well adjusted and happy. This is not that film.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as Frank and April Wheeler, a young attractive couple that everybody in the neighborhood loves. Their projected image is powerful, and the couple serves as a beacon for behavior and happiness in their community. Their realtor (Kathy Bates) thinks so highly of them that she brings her “insane” son John around them so he can bask in their normalcy. John (Michael Shannon) is labeled insane, primarily because he says whatever is on his mind whenever he feels like it. Michael Shannon is a scene stealer, and through his brutal honesty, he manages to unearth some emotions that were just beneath the surface of the Wheelers.
Set in the mid-50s, Frank works for Knox Machinery, a firm that his father worked for that has aspirations of developing computers (as if anyone will ever buy those). Frank hates his work, and it has begun to affect his marriage. April is a failed actress, but a loving wife. The couple has two children, though they aren’t in the film very much. The children are ornaments to the Wheelers and the film treats them as such. April has a plan to free them from their suburban doldrums, however. They will move to Paris where April will work as a secretary and Frank will relax and wait for inspiration to hit him. They agree it is the best thing for their marriage and their lives but even the best laid plans of yuppies and men often go awry.
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, despite the similarities, is different enough from AMERICAN BEAUTY to avoid any feelings of deja vu. The use of flashbacks is effective, and give us a glimpse of happier times. The performances from DiCaprio and Winslet are strong, with both actors displaying their anger and vulnerability simultaneously. Both characters are similarly trapped. April has nothing but her marriage to Frank, and since it’s not a happy marriage, it’s not much of a consolation. Frank seems to have nothing but his own self-loathing. When he is complimented and promoted at work, Frank suggests it was pretty much by mistake. John, the realtor’s son, has his honesty and authenticity but he is entirely alone. The other people in the films are satellites of the Wheelers, revolving around them but not without their own insecurities, hidden desires and deferred dreams.
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a well executed drama that is superbly written, directed and acted. The spirit of the 50s is captured well with shots of hordes of men exiting trains in identical suits and hats. However, this isn’t a story that is locked into its timeframe like FAR FROM HEAVEN or the AMC show MAD MEN. The themes are larger and transcend the social mores of the time period. Some dreams are never forgotten, they are merely deferred and repressed. The community sees the Wheeler’s as the perfect couple, but appearances can be deceiving. I have heard this film described as “depressing.” However, as Roger Ebert says “the only depressing movies are the bad ones.” REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is certainly not in that category.