Here we have a straight-forward human drama, devoid of camera tricks and special effects, which sees American Beauty director Sam Mendes reuniting Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the onscreen couple. The relationship doesn’t feel quite so contrived this time around, though, as the film (based on Richard Yates’ respected novel) depicts a sad reality of two unhappily married people spending their days together, feeling trapped within the suburban lifestyle.
This isn’t really a film to receive pleasure or satisfaction from, but it is one to gawp at with horrified interest. The two central characters, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet), live in a beautiful house at the end of “Revolutionary Road” in a small town, seemingly regretting their decision to settle down with their children and lead a normal life. Frank works full-time in a job that he hates, while April has her own frustrations being stuck at home as the bored housewife with aspirations of becoming an actress. As a result, they argue constantly.
Certainly, the film’s explorations of materialism, self-liberation and redemption have a lot in common with American Beauty. Although Revolutionary Road is set in the mid-1950s and the latter in more modern times, we get the impression that the environment has a tortured effect upon the lives of the couple. As routine develops, feelings become repressed and there is that dreaded normalcy that threatens to tear them apart. April, in particular, wants to break free, believing that they deserve more, and openly suggests to her husband that they should move to Paris so that they can escape such misery and fulfil their dream. Despite this originally being one of Frank’s ambitions in life, he continuingly stalls on this possibility when faced with a promotion at work and the disapproving comments of his “superior” colleagues. He doesn’t seem strong enough to go through with the idea.
Visually, Mendes has done a convincing job developing an environment that is appealing, yet daunting to the characters at the same time. From the exterior, everything looks so perfect in Revolutionary Road. Frank and April drive through the neighbourhood for the first time in their search for a new home, and we notice the white picket fences, neatly cut grass, and the neighbours sat drinking cocktails on their afternoon porches in the glorious sunshine.
This image sharply contrasts the scene beforehand, where we see Frank slamming his fist into the family car during a heated late-night argument with April at the side of the road. Proceeding his statement of opinion that he “doesn’t fit the role of the dumb, insensitive suburban husband”, we depict the Wheelers’ new neighbourhood as having a withering effect upon the couple’s freedom. A hint of romance inspired them to wed, but now they’ve begun to realize that their honeymoon is over and they’re living in a nightmare, seemingly unable to break free and achieve some form of happiness for themselves.
Frank and April are definitely two people that I think everyone can relate to. Even though Justin Haythe’s screenplay portrays them as supercilious individuals at times — who even neglect their own children for their own peace of mind — we can understand their boredom and desperation, and we yearn for them to do something worthwhile before they reach middle-age. As actors, it seems to me that Winslet and DiCaprio have definitely matured when you compare their performances here to their earlier roles, adding both a quiet and outspoken desperation to the weight of their characters, turning the viewer’s curiosity towards all the events in which they are involved with.
Perhaps, surprisingly, though, it is Michael Shannon’s performance as John, the mentally-handicapped son to Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), that speaks volumes about the human condition. The opinion of him being “unwell” is especially intriguing when his brutally-honest comments demonstrate more understanding of the precise nature and scope of our existence moreso than any of the “sane” people in the film (“Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”) David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn also contribute to a strong supporting cast as Frank and April’s next-door neighbours.
Overall, Revolutionary Road is a cynical outlook on the daily cycle of human beings and, in particular, the “American Dream” (a man with a wife, children, and a nice family home). Mendes’ film is quite disturbing to watch in places, but with a true-to-life script, some dramatic performances from the actors involved, and a relentless atmosphere of tragedy that is aided further by Thomas Newman’s low-key score, it’s still a very compelling movie, nevertheless.