Interesting thing about American suburbs - they've remained the same since the 1950's (which happens to be the time at which the majority of people in this country lived in one). Same neatly arranged blocks, same late-model cars in driveways, same carefree children playing in the yard. Same overly cautious outlook on life, same insecurities about keeping up with the neighbors, same habits of hiding marital dysfunction, same feelings of trapped isolation from a world passing you by.
What's most surprising about Revolutionary Road is not this realization about suburbia, but the realization that the novel on which the movie was based was written in 1961. Had Richard Yates penned this story in 2008, he would be exposing nothing that we don't already know, that we haven't already seen in an episode of "Desperate Housewives" (which I have to make clear I've never watched). Even the screenplay for Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (2002) had the advantage of decades of reflection on American culture. But way back in 1961, when the Baby Boom was ending and married suburban couples were beginning to experience the seven year itch, the prescient "Revolutionary Road" must have been viewed as a veritable harbinger of doom.
April and Frank Wheeler are miserable - with each other, with themselves, with their kids, work, and shared existence. Terrified that they're heading down a one way road to suburban hell, the two decide to move to Paris and defy as many cultural conventions of the American upper-middle class as possible. When their plans unexpectedly change, their worst nightmares are realized - and then some.
Yeah - it's not a romantic comedy. In fact it's hardly romantic at all; the Wheeler's short marriage has been bled dry of everything but hateful spite during the course of only a few years. It's an abusive relationship where both parties are at fault, neither will leave, and nobody even knows who struck the first damaging blow. It may say something about our bipolar characters that neither knows another friendly soul in which to confide their troubles or receive advice; all of their energy and attention is directed at bringing down the other, even though no one can ultimately "win" this battle. Divorce rates during this period were among the lowest in history (it was so taboo that the Wheelers never even consider the option), but even that wouldn't have solved their issues. April and Frank have serious emotional problems, and even if they didn't have them before their marriage, they'll sure be scarred with them afterwards.
Of course, that amount of pain can only develop from passionate love, and it's interesting to consider how our experience with the Wheelers would be different had different actors been involved. Seeing Leonardo DiCaprio (Body of Lies) and Kate Winslet (The Reader) together again for the first time since Titanic only brings to mind innocent infatuation. But our perhaps foggy memory of their sappy romance gives their rage in Revolutionary Road a significant punch that would be lacking with other actors.
Winslet predictably delivers another Oscar-worthy performance (meaning AMPAS will pay attention, even if she is snubbed for a sixth time), but it was a surprise to see DiCaprio hold his own so well against her. These two actors have matured impressively, and at this point have to be considered among the greatest of their generation, despite the fact that neither have yet won an Oscar (8 nominations between them). It would be unfair to the rest of the cast of Revolutionary Road to only focus on these two A-listers, however. Kathy Bates (she's still around, just choosing horrible movies) is memorable as the Wheeler's gossipy realtor, and David Harbour (Quantum of Solace) is perfect as their lusting neighbor.
Most impressive is Michael Shannon (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) as the "insane" son of Bates' character. Shannon has an incredibly distinctive face but I for some reason can't picture him in the other movies I've seen him in (and learning he was in Shotgun Stories makes me even more disappointed that it wasn't released in Minneapolis last year). We'll see a lot more of Shannon, I'm sure. If not on Oscar night (I predict he'll lose to Ledger), then probably for years to come.
Speaking of the future, his character in Revolutionary Road felt contrived until I realized he existed as a cautionary example for the Wheelers. Even though he wasn't so insane after all (in fact he might have been the most clear-headed character in the movie), they didn't want to become him in their later years, trapped both mentally and physically.
Wow, why is this review so long all of a sudden? Like the movie, it could probably use some editing. I'm rambling so let's get it over with: the acting was among the best of the year and there were some stunning moments in Revolutionary Road. It also features beautifully rich cinematography by the busy Roger Deakins (Doubt, The Reader) and one of the best musical scores of the year courtesy of perennial Oscar nominee Thomas Newman (WALL*E). On the other hand, it lacked an emotional hook that would have helped draw me in further to their relationship (how did they end up together in the first place?), and if the extended scenes without dialogue were meant to illustrate the Wheelers in their lonely despair, there should have been even more of them. It was uneven production overall (where were the children?) and the novel possibly deserves better, but there are enough urgent issues at stake to consider Revolutionary Road one of the more important films of the year, and one that may haunt us longer than we realize.
Though I never warmed to it, I could say the same about American Beauty, the contemporary suburban nightmare that was also directed by Sam Mendes (who is incidentally married to Winslet). Ultimately, Revolutionary Road is the finer film because it takes itself seriously and doesn't stray into the amusing caricature that makes American Beauty a more comfortable viewing experience. Moreover, Revolutionary Road is much more of an indictment on traditional American culture. Who could have imagined we would take no lessons from Yates' novel in the 40+ years since it was written?
Writing - 10
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5
Total: 46/50= 92% = A-