DreamWorks // 2008 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 2nd, 2009
How do you break free without breaking apart?
Overrated. That's the current rub on director Sam Mendes. Oh sure, he has an Oscar, but it's for that geek-determined mediocrity (and fellow Academy fave) American Beauty. As an artist, he's made four other films in addition to the aforementioned Kevin Spacey mid-life crisis epic, and two of them -- Jarhead, Road to Perdition -- are considered less than successful (his latest, Away We Go, is just hitting theaters now). Clearly, the vitriol ladled his way comes from a combination of things: beginner's luck; revisionist history; nerd nation backseat judgment; a failure to fulfill promise; a perceived lack of diversity. That last one is especially 'true' given the attacks on last year's brilliant Revolutionary Road. Deciding that Mendes was merely returning to the scene of his previous triumphs -- the suburbs of a deluded United States -- he was trying to regain his stature by repeating himself. Of course, as with any true auteur, mimicry was never part of the plan. Indeed, Revolutionary Road is a special experience all its own. It betters everything American Beauty had to offer, while providing its own devastating denouement about life on the outskirts of metropolitan civilization.
Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed) and April (Kate Winslet, The Reader) Wheeler are young bohemians trapped in uptight, WASP veneers. He dreams of something beyond his current dead end job at an ad agency. She wants more, much more, than the domesticated determination of a housewife. Hoping a change of scenery will motivate their personal aims, they sign up with real estate agent Helen Givings (Kathy Bates, Misery) and end up buying a beautiful house on the picturesque suburban street known as Revolutionary Road. At first, everything seems fine. April plans for an eventual move to Paris while Frank lucks into a promotion at work. Soon, the couple has kids and their goals get countermanded by a need to play plucky happy families. But this will not sit with April, who desperately wants more for herself and her husband. With Mrs. Givings mentally unstable son John (Michael Shannon, Bug) constantly calling out their false front, things for the Wheelers couldn't get any worse...or could they?
Relatively lost in the year-end awards season shuffle, the main complaint about Revolutionary Road lay directly at the feet of filmmaker Sam Mendes. From cries of copycatting (many argued that this movie was merely American Beauty time transported to the '50s) to a failure to fulfill the promise of Richard Yates classic novel, few found the effort rewarding or inviting. Many dismissed it without seeing it, while others who experienced the film's combination of suburban sun and interpersonal dread declared it a miscarriage and clamped onto some other Oscar-worthy entry. But the truth is that, outside the numerous narrow-minded dismissals, beyond the pale of people who like to judge based on their own inherent belief in what something should be vs. what it is, Revolutionary Road is a masterpiece. It's a stunning work of art that, over time, will be reevaluated and reconsidered as one of 2008's best, if not of the decade.
The basic issue at the heart of this film is the anti-Establishment desire to be true to yourself. Not necessarily a nonconformist (though the decade would definitely consider you as such) or a true rebel, but a post-modern member of a world which examines its own needs and takes those into consideration first. What Yates was trying to establish in his book, and what Mendes brings to mesmerizing life, is the contrast between the perceived happiness of the era's optimism and prosperity and the truth hidden behind the white picket fences of the growing gated community aesthetic. All throughout Revolutionary Road, Mendes focuses on the neighborhood -- the nosy-body couple living up the hill from the Wheelers, the real estate agent who adores putting people in the "place" they belong in, her crazed son, the gang at the office, or the local hangout -- and uses them as the barriers Frank and April must fight against. He then makes the battle all the more difficult when resolve declines and a desire to acquiesce takes over.
Through the most basic of cinematic elements -- the conversation -- Mendes manufactures all he needs. There is angst here, as well as newfound fervor and a sense of future gains. There is also deep seeded anger and the inability to turn plans into purpose. Revolutionary Road earns its title because it argues for the upheaval happening between '50s marrieds. It deconstructs the returning war hero and hampers him with a newly independent (minded) mate. It fractures Moms and Dads and sets the precedent for the oncoming increase in the divorce rate. It sets the stage for the '60s counterculture as well as explaining the reasons it failed. Frank and April are, at their very core, dreamers. They see the world through the kind of rose-colored glasses that only youth, lust, and a fresh start can create, and when it all comes crashing down, their defeat is the stuff of true tragic anti-heroism.
All Mendes has to do is let his actors go and simply get out of the way, and he does so with minimal flourish and a keen eye for detail. There are no real stunts here, unless you call giving Frank's mistress a hefty come-hither quality similar to '50s photo femme Bettie Page. Instead, Mendes utilizes his expert production craftsmen to turn the Wheelers dream into a nightmare vision of retro-revisionist calm. He then lets DiCaprio and Winslet open up the dialogue and breathe. Married couples who've felt similarly stifled by the expectations of family, friends, and the forces of the real world will instantly take to such verbal sparring. Part of the reason why Revolutionary Road failed could be within these incredibly painful arguments. Frank and April don't just attack each other, they attempt to eviscerate each other's very souls. Mendes guides the give and take by putting perspective within the fracas. He makes wise choices with his camera, focusing on faces so flush with defeat that it's like looking at a rotting corpse before it's about to explode.
DiCaprio and Winslet are wonderful here, so perfectly in tune with the tenets of these characters that their overheated rants never come across as showy or Method. Instead, there is an organic quality to Revolutionary Road, a sentiment that seems to grow intrinsically out of the situations, not set down by some novelist or screenwriter. Reunited after their work in Titanic, both actors deliver in ways that will astonish and astound. There's no way to explain how electric there confrontations are, how Winslet maneuvers from sensitive to shrew while DiCaprio simply unleashes. They are both matched by amazing turns from Kathy Bates (as the aforementioned property agent) and, most impressively, Michael Shannon as her mentally challenged son. A lot has been made out of the latter's performance, including a rare Oscar nod. But he is more than a possible statue. He is the voice of reason within a scenario aching for same. Call him Greek Chorus or observant onlooker. Whatever the case, he exposes the scars buried deep within the Wheeler's world no matter his own unusual brain battles.
There is real hurt here, as well as bitterness. Indeed, the main theme of Revolutionary Road is resentment, acrimony, and horror. Sure, you could argue that Mendes is doing little more than, once again, showing us the cracks in the soft suburban façade, but there is more to this movie than a knock at white flight urban planning. We are witnessing the breakdown of real people with real problems. The setting is secondary to all their turmoil. When viewed without all the fabricated frictions, when taken outside the ongoing debate over Mendes import to the artform, there is no denying the power contained in this film. It's fascinating on so many levels -- as commentary, as clarification, as a conclusion to the old version of the American Dream -- that one can easily get lost in the multilevel focus. It's a film that plays a lot like a novel, demanding attention, involvement, and a lot of personal reflection. You definitely get out of Revolutionary Road what you put into it. Give it little chance of succeeding and that's exactly what it does. Remain open to the experience and it delivers like only a masterpiece can.
Of course, the biggest issue people familiar with Yates' tome will have is the changes made to the narrative by Mendes and company. Luckily, the new DVD from Paramount provides a wonderful audio commentary with the director and screenwriter Justin Haythe that answers many of the questions. There are justifications here, as well as the kind of creative skylarking that makes these kinds of movies possible. When the Making-of documentary reminds us that this project has been gestating since the '60s, we see why Mendes and Haythe took the approach they did. The final bonus feature is deleted scenes which add more space to the performances and personalities. They are presented with optional commentary as well. From a purely technical specifications point of view, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is gorgeous, the transfer painstakingly recreating Mendes' soft light look at late '50s family life. One imagines the Blu-ray looking even better. As for the sound situation, we are treated to a delightful Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix that measures between ample atmospherics and easily discernible dialogue. There are also Spanish and French versions of the same soundtrack, as well as subtitles in all three available languages.
Maybe Mendes will redeem himself with those who complain about him the most. Still, grudges, even artistic ones, are often hard to overcome, and the failure of Revolutionary Road as both a trophy tent-pole or commercial concern seems to indicate that the pathway back to possible redemption will be a long and hard one. While his entertainment exile will always remain mysterious, it's understandable, especially in light of today's universal blogsphere/everyone's a critic conceit. Few filmmakers earn Mendes-level dismissal, but then again, few have risen as far, as fast as he did. As situations and circumstances change, so will the opinion on his oeuvre. For now, it's okay to relegate Revolutionary Road to the stockpile of 'same old' cinematic moves. Upon closer inspection, with a clearer personal perspective, many will see it for what it really is -- a stunning work of motion picture perfection.
Not Guilty. This was the Best Film of 2008, hands down...you just don't know
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site