Revolutionary Road Film Review

Posted on 22. Jan, 2009 by in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist

As a colleague of mine joked after a recent screening of Revolutionary Road, “this film really blows the lid off of suburban repression in the 1950s!” Indeed, Sam Mendes’ latest film revisits some of the territory covered in his directorial debut, the Academy Award-winning American Beauty, particularly the undercurrent of dysfunction and dissatisfaction that lurks beneath the veneer of idyllic small-town life. But it’s also a significantly more explosive and uncompromising look at that same subject, which is why Revolutionary Road is a very powerful film even if I’m unsure whether or not it’s also a very good one.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a pair of young dreamers who meet, get married and have kids before they realize that few if any of those dreams have actually been fulfilled. After a blowout argument following April’s stillborn debut as an actress, she proposes that they sell their home, leave their mundane life behind and move to Paris, which Frank visited during WWII and always wanted to return for another visit. Though he initially agrees, Frank simultaneously receives an unexpected promotion, and quickly begins to realize that his wife’s grand ambitions will require a lot more effort than he’s willing to make. Before long, April realizes that Frank is no longer interested in moving to France, and finds herself contemplating what next move to take even as news arrives that she has become pregnant for a third time.

Despite the fact that Mendes’ film is based on material originally written in 1961, it feels appropriate that Revolutionary Road arrives in theaters in 2008, a year in which Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster, The Dark Knight, was also its most introspective and philosophically complex. Were it not for some of the underlying gender politics that are acknowledged throughout the film without need of mention, Frank and April’s relationship could just as easily face similar challenges today: daunted by expectations of greatness ascribed to them by their less ambitious neighbors, the pair slowly realizes that it’s that same limitless potential that paralyzes them even as it supposedly offers boundless opportunity. While this existential dilemma may be lost on older generations, it’s one that twenty and thirtysomethings will respond to with shocking recognition thanks in large part to the devastating efforts of both DiCaprio and Winslet, who so ably and unflinchingly inhabit their characters that one cannot help but identify with them even as you’re repulsed by their callous, injurious behavior.

Unfortunately, the film thinks it more successfully justifies both characters’ behavior better than it actually does, which is why the ending, as powerful and saddening as it is, somehow doesn’t feel quite right; there’s a mournful regret where there needs to be outrage. Mendes, determined to find a zero-sum conclusion that doesn’t push buttons or prod audience sympathies, offers a curious coda involving Frank and April’s neighbors that underplays the devastating outcome of their self-destructive relationship and turns them almost exclusively into templates for the other characters’ expectations. But as a film that intends to chronicle the way in which big dreams can shackle lives as much as they liberate them, Revolutionary Road needs to show the repercussions of that struggle on the same people who endure it - which is ultimately why Mendes’ movie offers an undeniably explosive portrait of suburban repression, but its impact seems too far gone once the smoke has cleared.

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