Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Revolutionary Road ***
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet
Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Zoe Kazan, David Harbour
Kathryn Hahn, Richard Easton
The suburbs have been the mythical creature of innumerable films; it's within the picket fences and tree lined roads where some of the darkest machinations behind American culture have occurred.
Seen by the cynical as the place where dreams go to die, the notion that anyone who holds esteem towards these values is a killer robot or an alien has spoken more about the people who say it, than their actual discourse has done for them.
But when we are invited to view them under a critical light in a context that includes several other variables instead of just one accusing finger, the suburbs can turn out to be much more complex than we'd imagined.
And to explore this ambiguity seemed to be the intention of Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road", an adaptation of Richard Yates' cult novel about the Wheelers, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet), a couple who moves to the suburbs where they find their dreams crumbling before their eyes.
Frank works as an "executive" in a city based company where not even he's sure of what he does, while April stays home looking after the house and their children.
They socialize with the neighbors which include real estate agent, the gossipy Mrs.Helen Givings (an excellent Bates), her son John (Shannon) who has recently been released from a mental institution and the Campbells, Shep (Harbour who does miracles with the little scenes he's given) and Milly (Hahn).
The Wheelers find comfort in their knowledge that they're above everyone else. That the executive lunches, martini breaks and egg salad sandwiches are just a waiting room for the grand life they have ahead of them.
But when April realizes they are slowly giving in to convention, she takes action and comes up with a plan for them to move to Paris where she will work while Frank "finds himself".
Early on the film announces it will be mostly about marital problems and for this it becomes a showcase for its two lead actors who are phenomenal.
DiCaprio, ever more maturing, imbues Frank with the kind of fear only lessened by the fact that you may have seen it in people you know.
His eagerness to please and a sense of "deserving" everything promised with post-WWII America, but not getting it or at least not in the way he expected, touches on a sensitive part of you.
With April, Winslet goes for earnestness avoiding the melodrama one would come to expect from a hysterical housewife. She throws tantrums and most of the time sparks up fights she knows she shouldn't be holding, but there is something remarkably human about April that makes these things comprehensible, maybe the fact that a sense of emasculating her husband is one of the only things that make her feel alive.
Her eyes often wonder "how did we get here?" and her nuances are what give April the soul the movie never obtains. Talking to a friend she confesses how "she wanted in" not escaping and in the same scene she goes from moving and confessional to raw and sexual without us expecting it.
Eventually we wonder if April is putting on a performance all the time. Winslet taps into this element to make us doubt our very surroundings.
DiCaprio and Winslet convey this angst beautifully and turn "Revolutionary Road" into the movie that chronicles the implicitness other dysfunctional suburbia films have taken for granted.
Shannon's character then comes and questions everything about the Wheelers in a way nobody else dared to, think of him as a contemporary viewer interceding for all who have doubts about why people choose these lives.
Because if there is something true about the film is that its themes are as relevant as ever. John whose insanity might receive a milder diagnosis nowadays, has so many questions that he can't contain them and Shannon holds up remarkably well, given how other actors would've dealt with this character.
He represents a rage that most would opt to hide and in his final scene creeps under your skin and gives the film what ultimately becomes it's one undeniable truth.
Mendes crafts a work that is easy to admire, giving it a nice structure and an adequate pace, if the symbolism is nothing too new (enough with the pastels and light! Give us a film about suburbia inspired by German Expressionism!), it's talking to us in the only terms the director knows how and this is perhaps because even he's unsure of what he's trying to say.
The director puts out a troubling representation of traditional values, that nevertheless offers no option. It's like a window to hell from inside a burning house.
If he gets one thing right is the idea that the one thing humans can share is their misery, especially in the last scene where he tries to send us away with an ironic wink at a how it all will become a vicious cycle, but feels more like how Frank is described at the beginning of the film "a smartass with a big mouth" or camera in this case.
Throughout the film something that remains constant is the carelessness for the children, they are barely featured and the characters themselves' are rarely asked for opinion.
They appear purely as accesories and perhaps without trying Mendes makes the most lasting impression with them.
By not taking them into account he makes their consequent story the only one we're dying to hear.