There are very few movies that I actively HATE. There are badly made movies, forgettable movies and disappointing movies. But there are some that creep under your skin, keep your stomach in knots and inflame a deep, burning hatred of everything that is happening on the screen. It sets off my rarely flicked ‘irrationality’ switch, and no amount of impressive filmmaking can usher me carefully back from the ledge. I have vowed to never walk out of a film, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t praying for the reel to catch on fire, or unspool onto the floor while watching Revolutionary Road. I hate this film, and I won’t be swayed on the subject.
Director Sam Mendes came onto the scene ten years ago with the phenomenal American Beauty, a film that examined the seedy underside of the suburbs, and the stifling pressure of the elusive American dream. The film was darker than the bottom of a shoe, but it was endlessly entertaining, funny, and even hopeful. It was a modern update of the themes addressed in Richard Yates’ forgotten novel Revolutionary Road, written in 1961. So it should have been fitting for Mendes to bring Yates’ revered work to the big screen. By comparison, Revolutionary Road makes American Beauty look like Bride Wars. There is not a shred of hope, light or even life in Mendes’ fourth film.
Young Frank and April Wheeler meet at a party, and instantly fall for each other’s zest for life. They imagine a life of promise with one another; they dream of travelling to Europe where Frank will discover his calling in life and April will become a great actress. But what if Frank doesn’t have a calling in life? And what if April isn’t a great actress? Before they can find out, they are trapped with two children in an immaculately cute house on the oppressively named Revolutionary Rd. As the years pass, Frank and April’s eyes begin to wander beyond their marital bed, and eventually their love for one another degrades into affection, and then tolerance, and then…
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have evolved into arguably two of the best actors of their generation since appearing in Titanic 12 years ago. It’s hard to dispute their talent here; their shouting matches are aggressively realistic. However, Frank and April are such unlikable, hateful, selfish, detestable characters, there is no possible entry point for an audience to engage with them. Within the first two minutes of the film, they are arguing like mad banshees on the side of the road. And no, it’s not a flashback. With the exception of their brief meeting, this is the point at which we join the Wheeler story. Buckle up.
The real problem is Justin Haythe’s script. He has reduced Yates’ dialogue into bite sized awards-show sound bites, and then has the characters shout them back at one another, until the audience can barely believe these sociopaths are able to argue so succinctly. Haythe mistakes impending doom with narrative tension, and then bails on a cathartic climax. He tags on a completely unnecessary ten minute epilogue, reducing all the potential power of the film’s tragic finale. I don’t care if it was in the book. It does not work in the movie.
There are some highlights however; Mendes has always had a knack for making his films look and sound beautiful, and Revolutionary Road is no different. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Doubt, No Country for Old Men) puts more depth into the frames than Mendes does into the characters. Composer Thomas Newman (American Beauty, WALL-E) provides a beautiful score that adds more emotional weight than the scenes often deserve. Michael Shannon’s Oscar nominated performance as John; a neighbour’s mentally unstable son, is an uncomfortable wonder. His two brief scenes are the only points at which the film’s monotonous arguments are given a jolt of electricity. With an eye for hypocrisy and an ear for falsity, John is relentless in his persecution of April and Frank. I was right there with him.
If you wish to see an examination of the social pressures and expectations of American society in the 1950s, then I cannot recommend the television show Mad Men enough. What that show is able to capture in one episode eclipses Revolutionary Road considerably. I did not enjoy a moment of Mendes’ depressing opus; a message-heavy sledge hammering, without much of a message. Everything here has been done before and better (and sometimes by the same director). I could not in my right mind recommend this film to anyone.
In 1976, Yates’ mental health deteriorated to a state in which he had to be taken care of by his friends living in Long Island. One afternoon, he stripped off his clothes, ran naked into the street, and then returned to the house to urinate on the walls. Halfway through Revolutionary Road, I too felt my mind slipping into Yates’ madness. It took all my willpower to keep me from running to the screen and taking my pants off too. I hate this film.