Witness an Emotional 'Revolution' -- Film Review

Directed by: Sam Mendes, Runtime: 119 minutes
Grade: A-

Sam Mendes has a flair for directing films both beautiful and painful alike, from his claim-to-fame cathartic suburban drama American Beauty to his family-based gangster picture Road to Perdition. Now he gives us Revolutionary Road, a meditation on suppressed emotions and crumbling hopes underneath the invisible avalanche toppling over '50s lives across America. To say that it's his most mature work to date is both accurate and daunting, considering how evocatively his films about war, self-image, and murder can be. But Revolutionary Road is also Sam Mendes' paramount accomplishment to date, one that shrinks his natural buffer zone between the neo-idealistic façade of a mundane existence and unbearable emotional torment even further.

Adapted from Richard Yates' novel, it begins with two starry-eyed young people eyeing each other across the room during a party. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is slightly timid but vivacious enough to approach her, while she's a spirited, possibly dominant creature with a zest for life. She sees emotion in his eyes, and vice versa. They share a dance, a deep look, and a natural moment where it seems as if everything just might play out for them. Their connection is apparent from the start, making quick work of calling our invested emotions into the two characters that appear to be shaped from the same mold -- something different from the rest of the partygoers. What's obvious from this scene, and all of the other sequences featuring "young" Frank, is that he strives to truly be "alive", something that seems to be missing from everybody else around him.

Just as we're beginning to appreciate the brighter side of their dynamic, we promptly cut several years down the line to a point where Frank and April have ensnared the "perfect" existence after their courtship. It, however, isn't anything like we'd imagine for them, and far from perfect; Frank, once something of a renaissance man, has broken down under the pressure of society and family necessity to stick with a job as a iron-heart marketing suit, while partly-aspiring actress April has been chained down to the domestic life. Married with two children and living in a Connecticut suburb, they appear to have the whole she-bang on paper -- except happiness. It's been replaced by vitriol, mangled emotions and persistently sharp banter that slowly, and painfully, changed each of them into their antithetic personalities.

From the start, we can't help but share at least mild fondness for both Frank and April, due in large part to the rekindled, somehow innocent reunion between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. They reconnect for the first time since Titanic, bringing to the table over ten years of development as actors / actresses. During that time, Leo has brough Howard Hughes (The Aviator), a South African diamond smuggler (Blood Diamond), and an undercover cop (The Departed) to life, while Kate Winslet has absolutely lit up the screen in role after potent role -- with Finding Neverland and Little Children, sure, but also as the effervescent Clemetine in Michel Gondry's masterful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With April, Kate Winslet delivers a criminally underappreciated performance; under societal suburban pressure, she makes us see April of yesteryear within the April crippled by her maddening situation. Glimmers of her past vibrancy ink through, interconnecting with her torment in incredible fashion. Alongside a very strong turn from Leo as the sexually repressed, emotionally broken Frank, they create heart-wrenching magic with each verbal blow delivered.

Anyone who has been in a relationship gone sour will find something familiar and natural within Revolutionary Road, largely thanks to the fantastic penmanship at play with Justin Haythe's adaptation of the novel. It paints the portrait of two individuals who have, essentially, had their hearts forcefully reconstructed into something undesirable. Frank and April's arguments might not be about the same topics that we've thrown around in fallen relationships, but many of the punchy dialogue will feel eerily familiar. For those who haven't endured something like this, it's a cautionary tale; there are wrongs and rights on each side, irrationalities and desires repressed. It's a film about anything and everything stirring within an emotional soul -- repressed passion, unfulfilled desires, a sense of worthlessness, and the big question as to whether you're living your life the way you really should.

That's where Revolutionary Road really packs a punch. Like American Beauty, Mendes finds himself shackled back into suburban mental hell. He manages to make it a beautiful hell though, calling back cinematographer Roger Deacons -- also the Coen Brothers' mainstay photographer -- to pump it full of life, along with exceptional composer Thomas Newman for another outstanding score. But all the beauty only heightens the intensity of the chaos, making the appealing atmosphere all the more unbearable as it crushed the once-smitten couple. As their lives spiral downwards into a world of affairs and bloodcurdling arguments, the idyllic little house on Revolutionary Rd. being to shape into one of the more attractive battlefields you could imagine. Truth be told, it's not an uncommon battlefield, and Mendes really has a grasp on the timelessness of that notion.

But their plight heightens and grows to its most complex levels with the addition of one character: John Givings, played by Michael Shannon. Frank and April's arguments were embittered and gripping up until the point when he, an ex-mental patient, comes over to visit with his mother Helen (Kathy Bates). Then, John opens his mouth and changes the ways that they, and we, view the sanities and insanities of the "picture perfect" life. He's in three scenes total, but they're easily the three most important pieces of the film; though considered to be the ramblings of a lunatic -- an intelligent lunatic, mind you -- by John's family, the Wheelers are able to see beyond his mental condition and absorb his earnest, surprisingly sane insight on love and the nuclear family. Michael Shannon absolutely steals the show and, in ways, snatches credit for everything positive and negative that topples down afterward.

Which, it does. Revolutionary Road molds around the prospects of attempting to regain innocence, of escaping the invisible trap of suburban press, by taking drastic measures and grabbing the bull by the horns. Frank and April try to regain their prior identities when the maddening atmosphere grows thicker, expressing the desire to flip-flop who's dominant in the relationship and how they live their lives -- harking on their desires to visit Europe. It's in the haunting, chain-on-the-ankle draw from the jaded and pessimistic American suburbia that weighs them down, brainwashing them into surrendering their happiness for safety. As it progresses, their interplay grows more maddening with each notch as it approaches a deceitful, volcanic conclusion.

Revolutionary Road is, simply, brilliant; solemn, melancholy, and heartbreaking, but a brilliantly emotional deconstruction of relationships and, easily, one of the best films of 2009. Surprisingly, even with the insurmountable pain pulsating through the Wheelers' war of words, there's still a small stream of hope ... one of the key things that Mendes always seems to keep running through his pictures, no matter how depressing or painful they get. It might only be a slight glimmer of hope underneath the story's messages that revolve around feeling trapped and losing control of one's own life, but it's certainly there.


Film Gurl said...
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Film Gurl said...

I agree, I think this is a great film! I read the book after seeing the movie and it explained a few parts in the story, it was good background info. The character of John Givings is brilliantly portrayed. Though he seems to be a crazy lunatic, the ironic thing is that he tells it like it is - the truth, which is something most people don't want to see. I do enjoy Sam Mendes' work, I also liked American Beauty. Nice review!

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