When Richard Yates published his national book award finalist Revolutionary Road in 1962, its themes of marital infidelity, abortion, reversed gender roles in the household, and the perilously stultifying effects of suburban America were indeed revolutionary. Forty-six years later, the taboos have faded and the discussion of these issues have entered fully into public discourse. Now, after a slew of films spanning genres and nations took on each of these issues in-depth, acclaimed director Sam Mendes has made the puzzling choice to adapt Yates’ text to the screen in a star-studded prestige piece. The resulting film, while exhibiting the formal beauty and meticulous attention to detail characteristic of Mendes’ work, fails to register beyond the level of melodrama with 21st-century cultural sensibilities.
Much of the early buzz regarding Revolutionary Road has predictably surrounded the on-screen reunion of Titanic co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett. The two appear here as Frank and April Wheeler, a superficially perfect young couple in 1950s suburban Connecticut whose marriage is secretly crumbling. Both yearn for unrealized personal fulfillment -- April struggling to resign herself to life as a stay-at-home mom after her acting career fails and Frank seeking a hazily undefined alternative to the monotonous toil of an advertising executive. When an unplanned pregnancy derails their hastily conceived plan to escape suburban melancholy, their marriage descends into a series of increasingly bitter verbal altercations.
For the most part, DiCaprio and Winslett live up to their reputations as Hollywood elite. Winslett outshines her counterpart to a degree, who can never quite match her with a believable level of violent rage. DiCaprio fares far better when directed to simmer quietly or look wounded. Mendes exploits this ability expertly, juxtaposing a close-up of a desperately pained Frank with a discordant ambient score in one of the film’s most gripping segments. Yet character actor Michael Shannon threatens to steal the show from both megastars, providing the film’s most enjoyable performance as the supposedly insane son of the Wheelers’ realtor. Shannon delivers his outbursts, the film’s actual ideology deemed psychotic by other conformist characters, with a gleefully manic intensity that offers welcome relief from the film’s otherwise crushingly acrimonious tone.
Formally, Revolutionary Road is an exquisitely made film, pristine in its execution. Throughout, Mendes is clinically precise in his alignment of sound and image with emotion. Like a true technician, he crafts some gorgeous shots of Frank heading to work adrift in an elegantly uniform sea of fedoras and trench coats. Later, as Frank fleetingly believes he will escape corporate drudgery by moving to Paris, Mendes captures him staring dreamily into space as the human sea parts around him. The scene in which Frank’s two young children wish him a surprise happy birthday, eerily illuminated by candlelight in an otherwise pitch black house, jars the viewer with dissonance between the children’s innocent joy and Frank’s creeping guilt over cheating on April that afternoon. A pensive, minimalist score by frequent Mendes collaborator Thomas Newman consistently underlines the script’s emotional peaks and valleys.
However, that score points to Revolutionary Road’s biggest flaw: an inescapable sense that we’ve been here before. Newman’s sparse piano chimes are almost indistinguishable from those he deployed in the most well-known recent cinematic critique of American suburbia, Mendes’ still unsurpassed debut American Beauty. That film managed to reinvigorate the suburban exposé genre that already had a defining Oscar-winning drama (Ordinary People) and several inventive classics ranging from the charming (Edward Scissorhands) to the horrifying (Blue Velvet). The stars and mise-en-scène have changed, but Revolutionary Road offers an almost identical tale of a superficially ideal family disintegrating in the face of conformity that just seems overplayed by now.
Additionally, the period piece setting erodes the freshness that made American Beauty feel so urgently relevant without adding any insightful historical perspective by way of comparison to our own era. Subject matter that would have been shocking upon the release of Yates’ novel in the early 1960s feels here like a disposable framing device for an unfortunately predictable melodrama. Even some of the film’s more intriguing subplots have received more thorough treatment in other recent works: Television’s Mad Men has cornered the market on the volatile cultural milieu of the 1950s advertising executive, and heart rending Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days dealt far more intimately with the personal implications of abortion.
For a British director, Sam Mendes has always displayed remarkable insight into fundamentally American concerns, from suburban ennui to the state of war films in the post-Vietnam era. Revolutionary Road ultimately misfires not because of any shortcomings in the director’s craft, but rather in his judgment in covering thematic ground that has almost universally been tackled more thoughtfully elsewhere, most notably by himself. Revolutionary Road is a good film to be sure, but one lacking the tumultuous newness it needed to be great.