Rethinking “Revolutionary Road”

Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road was sorely overlooked at the Academy Awards, especially given that Kate Winslet wasn’t even nominated as Best Actress for her performance (though she was for The Reader).

But it’s a wrenching movie that sticks to your soul, long after the credits have ended.  There aren’t many movies that do that, let alone ones in 2008.  It’s a suburban Kafka tale, about a marriage in crisis.  It begins with Frank and Alice open to the possibilities of love and adventure but that moment is brief; it isn’t long before they are arguing at each other for silly reasons.


Revolutionary Road essentially begins in the middle of a petty squabble and slowly dissolves into an existential battle for the soul of a marriage.  It isn’t pretty.

Mick LaSalle of the San Fran Chronicle outlines the reasons why the movie was his top choice of the year in a succinct and direct manner.  Every point he makes is spot on.  This is a fully realized masterpiece, a movie that begs to be watched in monochrome. 

1. Marriage, ’50s style: The movie, which stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, dissects a marriage, an examination that leads in two distinct and significant directions. The movie captures the timeless torment of the unhappy marriage, in the way the spouses know each other’s weak spots and go for the jugular, and in the way arguments can veer out of control from the simplest of beginnings.

At the same time – and this is important – the film is very specific about the marital pressures peculiar to the film’s era, the mid-1950s. For the man, it means a life sentence of unrewarding work. For the woman, it’s a cell door closing. For both, it’s a farewell to dreams.

Incidentally, the specificity with which director Sam Mendes conveys this era makes it baffling and irritating to hear people compare this film to AMC’s “Mad Men.” “Revolutionary Road” is about the 1950s, not the early ’60s, a big difference. Richard Yates, who wrote the novel “Revolutionary Road” in 1961, understood the difference; that’s why he set the book in 1955. It’s the difference between Eisenhower and Kennedy, between Tennessee Ernie Ford and Chubby Checker, and anybody who confuses the two isn’t giving this film the attention it demands and deserves.

2. Unforgettable shot: Speaking of the 1950s, I love the shot of the men getting off the train in the morning at Grand Central Station, a sea of hats and gray flannel cascading down the long stairway, on the way to some death-mill office job. Who would want to be a part of that?

3. Not your generic marriage: The script brilliantly conveys a particular personality dynamic almost guaranteed to make for a glorious courtship and a miserable marriage. Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) meet and are mutually captivated. His secret desire is to be a big shot. Her dream is to live a life that’s truly unique. When they talk about their life dreams, they sound as though they share the same ambition: Each wants to be distinctive.

In fact, his desire to be a big shot is the longing of the closet conformist, who craves the approval of society and the envy of his peers. And her desire to be unique is the longing of someone who has no need of society or peers. So they get married thinking they’re speaking the same language and then find themselves married and having no idea what the other is talking about.

4. A private scene between husband and wife: Frank and April visit their best friends and tell them the good news: They plan to sell the house and move to Paris at the end of summer! They’re going to throw off the bounds of conformity and live an adventurous life! Later that night, the friends (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), a married couple, alone in their bedroom, are utterly thrown. They are millimeters away from confronting their own frustration and life despair. But with an act of will, they force themselves to sink back into their delusion. It’s painful.

5. Sex and despair: I love the use of extra-marital sex in “Revolutionary Road.” As is so often the case in life, it’s the only creative outlet left to people who have given up hope. It’s an expression of deep despair.

6. Leo: This is a wonderful role for DiCaprio, in that it capitalizes on all that’s strong and weak about him: his winning smile, his glibness, his engaging personality and also his slightly superficial, lightweight aura. Winslet’s spirit seems many years older, which makes Frank seem no match for April’s expectations.

7. Kate: Winslet is astonishing in this film, giving the best performance by an English-speaking actress in 2008. It’s all there: April’s enormous dreams and crushing frustration. I love the subdued yet ever-alert way she looks at DiCaprio for signs that he might be the man she thought she was marrying. And I love the way he mostly wilts and sometimes preens under the scrutiny. This is the portrait of a brilliant woman shut in a trap.

8. A silent generation speaks: I’ve had women in their 80s tell me about life in the mid-1950s, how all the cultural markers – movies, TV, advertisements – told them they should be happy in domestic servitude, but they weren’t. So they thought they were the only ones and were crazy. “Revolutionary Road” is a movie about those women. You might think of it as a tribute to them.

9. Michael Shannon. He was Ashley Judd’s co-star in “Bug.” Here he plays a mentally ill man who says whatever he thinks, and everything he observes about Frank and April’s marriage is true. He has just a couple of scenes, but he dominates them, and the screenplay gives him the key line – that everyone admits to the emptiness of suburban life, but that “it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

10. Repeat viewings: Finally, this is a movie that can and should be seen more than once. Watch it one time through her eyes. Watch it again through his eyes. It works both ways. It works in every way. This is a great American film.

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  • jamesfurbush January 12, 2010, 3:50 am

    Interesting. I'm not sure I picked up on the progressive/conservative messages in the film, but unfortunately that's the rep the 50's have. Well the myth of the fifties. Reality is always far from the truth and even then everybody's experiences are always different anyways. Still, it was tough to watch society devour both Leo and Kate's characters.

  • Jeff January 11, 2010, 7:16 pm

    Great acting by both leads. And a great film except for the liberal message that life in the 50’s was all a shame and that the American ideal family is a myth. There were sucessful people/families in the 50’s and unsuccessful families in the 50’s. just as there are today and tomorrow. I get sick of the liberal Message of pessimistic view of the individual persuit of liberty and happiness. The left hated the 50’s because they alway dissect what’s unfair about any and all experiences. Instead of celebrating the 50’s and all the advancements to mankind, they view the era as a wasted time of inequality and unfairness.

    This film fails at sending the message that conservatism is destructive.
    What this film does say is how liberals view the world, a world of unfairness and that competitive natures should be squashed and controlled by society.