January 7, 2009

REVIEW: Revolutionary Road (A-)

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.

Frank and April try to keep the suburban dream alive...

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-


  1. We settled almost exactly the same on this film, except I was disappointed with the score. Thomas Newman is one of my favorites, and he just didn't deliver on this film.

    The acting and cinematography (as well as costumes) stood out most to me. Phenomenal stuff.

  2. Interesting, k (and thanks for slogging through that review). The music was one of my favorite parts, though I admit the score was a little too present in the last half hour of the movie.

    If Deakins finally gets his Best Cinematography Oscar this year, I hope it's for this over the other two. I also loved the production design. I kept looking at the design details and furnishings in their house, which I'm sure was fun for someone to work on.

    By the way, I have like 50 reviews of yours to catch up on in my reader. You two have been busy over at ITG!

  3. Dan, I can well understand your desire for Deakins to win (and his subtle, textured and compelling work here may well be his finest work this year) but for me it's a dead-heat with his lyrical period work (with Chris Menges) on THE READER. Still, it's a tough call. You say you rambled? No sir you did not. You gave your typically thorough assessment of the film's components, which in this case were so exacellent (I tend to agree with K on Newman, but as I like the composer quite a bit, I can understand how anything written by him will have fans)that they are actually even better than the finished product. That's not in any way to downgrade the film--I agree with an A- or B+ grade, which you have assigned it, but it somehow misses the year-end ten best list. Michael Shannon is indeed a scene-stealer here (his big scene is the one everyone always mentions) and both the leads are excellent. Yes DiCaprio is coming of age and Winslet seems to excel in everything she appears in, as many of us have seen with what she did in THE READER this year as well.

  4. I thought Thomas Newman's score was fitting. Not nearly as memorable as Road to Perdition or American Beauty, but still fitting.

    Otherwise, our thoughts on the film are more or less the same.

  5. Really, Sam? Had it not been for some poking around after seeing The Reader, I wouldn't have realized Deakins was involved! For some reason his work in that didn't stick out to me (compared to Doubt), which is not to say it wasn't still above and beyond the work of his peers.

    I think you nailed it perfectly about this movie, and it gets to what k says - everything was clicking, it just wasn't clicking together.

    This will be a close call on my top 10 list, but it's a memorable movie in any case. I need to catch up on Allan's review still as well.

  6. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jonathan. I'm starting to think my review is fragmented enough so that everyone can find some part of it they agree with! Whoops.

    Road to Perdition's score escapes my memory only because I saw it just once, but I do agree that the score for American Beauty is a seminal work. I feel like I've heard those dinking xylophone and piano chops in every other movie and/or commercial and/or TV theme in the last decade. Here's a trivia nugget: he lost the Oscar to "The Red Violin" that year, and has yet to win one in eight nominations!

    I'm sure he'll get his 9th this year for either RR or WALL*E.

  7. For me it clicked, all of it and its one of my favourite movies of the entire year. DiCaprio and Winslet elevated it for me, over and above my love for the source material and the way in which it was handled, technically (as in the cinematography, beautiful) and in the adaptation process (almost flawless imo). Yeah, your "ramblings" are the most coherent and elegant I've read ;)

  8. Thanks much, Nick. All that matters is how it worked for you. Did your read the book? I'm sure you did.

    I'm finding the movie is sticking with me over the last couple of days. I don't think I'll read the book, but I'm interested about the themes and the time in American history.

  9. Obviously I know very little about that period of American history - most periods of American history to be honest - but I did read the book and the characters of Frank and April are just so fascinating. Unlike the film, it goes very, very deep into the mindset of Frank, his motivations and why he feels like such a failure, but at the same time, I don't think the film would have worked if it went too deep.

    Today when I went to see Boy A (it's been on a local circuit for a while now), I saw the trailer for Rev Road (opens here the same day it goes wide stateside) and I was reminded why I loved the film so much. I found it extraordinary.

  10. Thanks for the insight on the book - knew I could count on you! I agree that the movie might have suffered had it focused too much on Frank, but getting inside his head might have helped grab my own emotions more. Or if I'd ever been married and divorced. That might have helped.

  11. I'm a bit skeptical going into this movie. Partly because I think American Beauty, while enjoyable, was overrated (while I thought Jarhead one of the best films of 2005 and probably Mendes' greatest work - so of course it was neglected and/or disparaged by critics and audiences).

    Yes, I know this is based on a book from the early sixties, so I shouldn't hold its theme against it, but it boggles my mind how every time a movie comes out decrying suburbia, it's treated as if some new ground has been broken. Really, people, this has been going on for 50 years. It would be revolutionary at this point for a film to come out IN FAVOR of the suburban, middle-class, nuclear-family values.

    All that said, I'm very curious and it's up there with The Wrestler and Benjamin Button (the latter film one I'm even more skeptical about) among new releases I want to see.

    Incidentally, though I used it as a springboard, I haven't actually read your review - I'll most likely wait until I've seen the movie.

  12. Great points, and I hope you come back after you see it. First of all, I'm the last person to defend American Beauty - in fact I also didn't like it (even though I only hint at that in this review). Jarhead...well it's kind of faded from my memory, to be honest, but I liked the idea of it.

    And I would about the suburban piece - the only reason RR sticks out to me is because it is indeed such an old story, and not a new one. Everybody's been ripping it off, you could say.

    No problem with being skeptical about movies. I almost always end up seeing them, but I find a little hint of doubt always makes help your reaction, whether you love it or hate it.

  13. Quite agreed that Kate Winslet is fantastic. We are spoiled for choice with quality female leads at the moment : Winslet, Cate Blanchet, Marisa Tomei, Amy Adams to name but 4.
    Not sure I agree with your opinion on Michael Shannon however. Certainly his character had important things to say in the context of the film but I found his high comedy act was out of step with the rest of the film, in my opinion.

  14. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, GGBlog.

    I actually agree with you regarding Shannon's character, if we both accept that he did a great job portraying him (which was all I really meant to say about him).

    Aside from his character's existence as a warning sign for Frank and April, I originally thought of him as just a bizarre plot device - a catalyst through which Frank and April could initiate explosive arguments. He just seemed totally unnecessary to the story.

    But then I thought about their future and his past, and it made a little more sense.


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