Monday, May 16, 2011

Revolutionary Road Movie Review: Portrait of a Decaying Marriage

First published on American Madness on 23 January 2009.
Republished here with a typo correction.

Emotional abuse and marital discord have not been this explicitly depicted on screen since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton devastated each other and another young couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The barbs slung in that older film were exchanged between a husband and wife, long-married and bitter. Edward Albee’s play on which it is based poked holes in the mythology of the American dream, part of which necessitates being a happily married couple.

Arriving in the same vein and more than 40 years later, but taking place in nearly the same time period is Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road, based on the novel by Richard Yates. It tells the story of a young suburban couple who appear perfect to everyone in the neighborhood, while behind closed doors Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio), who hates his job and is utterly dissatisfied with his life, and his wife April (Kate Winslet) are slowly burning toward complete marital and emotional breakdown.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe wastes no time in jumping from the introductory scene of the two beautiful young things meeting at a party to their life several years later. Now with two young children, April has all but given up on her dreams of acting. Frank watches with head lowered in shame as she performs in a shabby local production. Mendes deftly directs his actors, imbuing their backstage meeting with seething tension. There are wounds here years in the making that are about to burst open. Explode is the more apt term for what occurs between husband and wife on the drive home.

You may think the film has hit an emotional peak too soon – that the brilliant performances of DiCaprio and Winslet have dealt all their cards in the first ten minutes, but you’d be wrong. Their insults and digs into each other will grow worse beyond belief.

Mendes has explored similar ground before in American Beauty, which also focused on an unhappily married couple living a farce of a happy existence in suburbia. While there are many comparisons to be made between the two stories, they are not entirely similar. American Beauty was more about one man’s mid-life crisis, thematically focused on our inability to see the beauty of the world while we participate in the rat race of capitalistic desires for more. Here the story is focused on the couple and their inability to communicate, blaming each other for their inabilities to grab what they really want in life.

Thus is the basis for April’s big surprise for Frank. She suggests they sell everything and move to Paris where she plans to work as an assistant in a U.S. Government facility while Frank figures out what he wants to be in the world. If this strikes you as a thoroughly adolescent fantasy that has little place in real life that’s because it is. It’s no surprise that Frank’s co-workers and another young couple (friends of the Wheelers) think the idea is crazy. It’s no coincidence that the one person who thinks it’s a good idea is John (Michael Shannon), the son of the local real estate agent and neighborhood social butterfly, Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates). John has been committed to a psychiatric institute and is periodically allowed out on a day pass to visit with Frank and April because Mrs. Givings views them as completely normal.

April’s plan is an attempt to apply a Band-Aid to a hemorrhaging marriage (one in which infidelity has already seeped in). The plan, like any abrupt change to the status quo, has an immediate and noticeable (positive) effect on their relationship. But it can’t last. Before long they have returned to unleashing verbal trauma on one another.

But Shannon’s character provides one of two major flaws in the film. To be sure, Shannon gives an interesting and believable, if slightly shallow performance. When John enters into a conversation he says the things that everyone else is thinking, but that social grace teaches us to stymie. His behavior is excused by his mother because “He’s not well.” And so it is the film’s excuse, too. The character and his psychosis are a convenience, thrown in with no purpose in mind but to have someone tell the truth of their situation to Frank and April. It’s problematic least of all because the film seems to want to have it both ways. In addition to his being a plot device Haythe makes John sympathetic – a throwaway comment about the treatment of the mentally ill in the 1950s.

The film’s second major flaw is its muddied and somewhat inexplicable closing scenes. I can’t say much without giving away the game. The final culminating event is not only predictable, but a bit too dramatically far-fetched. The closing scenes that occur after want to make subtle comments about married life for both the young and the old in the suburbs. But the comments are neither subtle nor particularly interesting in their observations.

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