As much as director Sam Mendes seems to loathe suburbia, he is undeniably fascinated by it. Revolutionary Road sees the director re-explore the “hopeless emptiness” of suburban life, the monotony of being just like everyone else, and the childish desire to simply escape it all. He’s been here before; despite being an adaptation of Richard Yate’s novel, Revolutionary Road is essentially a 1950′s themed take on the same issues Mendes explored in 1998 with American Beauty. Arguably, this isn’t a bad thing; Mendes’ directorial debut was a remarkable film and Road sees the director return to his obvious strengths. Yet despite an entire ensemble of superb performances, his latest film doesn’t feel as fresh as his earlier effort, nor does it have the lasting impact. Why? Simply because Mendes beat himself to it 10 years ago; he made his point so perfectly the first time around, it seems somewhat unnecessary to try and do it again.
After several mundane years of completing the same tedious routine day in day out, the whimsical beginnings of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) Wheeler’s marriage has long disappeared. Frank loathes his job yet keeps working in order to provide for his young family, while April’s failed dream of becoming a stage actor leaves her feeling completely trapped in a life she doesn’t want to lead. In a hope to escape the banality of suburbia that has plagued their existence since they moved into their home on Revolutionary Road, the Wheeler’s spontaneously decide to move to Paris and start fresh. To their friends and colleagues, their plan seems irrational and naive, which to the Wheelers is all part of the charm. But as the date of departure looms closer, their relationship is tested by unforseen challenges, casting doubt on their plans to escape their ordinary lives.
Ominous and nerve-wrecking, any signs of hope within the film’s morose story is underpinned with a foreboding knowledge that it’s soon going to come crashing down. But having been here before, the story feels just as unremarkable as the Wheeler’s lives, lacking the freshness that made American Beauty so enthralling. Yet Mendes’ direction is still capable of furthering the notion of despair that won him an Academy Award: if he’s not framing the Wheeler’s within door frames and windows to suggest entrapment, he’s deliberately lingering on an empty shot to force us to see the nothingness that exists. The conformity of the era’s fashion is also used by Mendes to drive the point home; Frank merely becomes an indistinguishable addition to a sea of hats and suits when he makes his journey to work each day.
In fact, Mendes’ direction is so caught up in trying to make us seen the monotony of suburbia, it ends up becoming a bit monotonous itself. Regardless of how impeccably reproduced the 1950′s costumes and sets may be, when dealing with such an unremarkable story, two hours of bleak visuals does start to wean on one’s interest. In fairness however, the film doesn’t try to mask the fact that this is a hugely character driven story, which is lucky considering the performances that bring each character to life are nothing short of brilliant.
Whether she is the tender fantasist or the entrapped, miserable housewife; April’s neurotic shift in character is handled with such convincing tact by Kate Winslet. There is little wonder why Winselt left the Globes holding a golden statue for Best Actress. Her performance is so dynamic and complex, it frequently manages to send a shiver down your spine. Yet Revolutionary Road boasts brilliant performances from the entire cast. Just as deserving as Winselt this awards season, arguably even more so, is Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Wheeler. DiCaprio convincingly depicts the uncertainty of Frank; longing to escape his droning life and find purpose, but afraid that if he does he will only discover he hasn’t got one.
The chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet has markedly matured since they first set sail in Titanic; despite being a film rich with dialogue, so much of their onscreen relationship is revealed through what goes unsaid. However, Michael Shannon’s brilliant performance as their neighbour’s psychiatric son John makes damn sure some things don’t go unsaid. The obvious irony of his insanity is that he proves to be the most truthful of them all:
“If you want to play house, you’ve got to have a job. If you want to play very nice house, you’ve got to have a job you don’t like.”
Even with the impeccable cast and production, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Revolutionary Road is merely a lesser rehash of Mendes’ more accomplished film American Beauty. By failing to truly distinguish itself from the aforementioned film, direct comparisons are inevitably drawn, and without a story as fresh or dynamic as its characters, Revolutionary Road ultimately comes up short.