Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” (2008)

In 2008, Sam Mendes teamed up with Hollywood heavyweight producer Scott Rudin and directed REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, a 1950’s-set chamber drama about a rotting marriage stifled by a normal existence in the suburbs.  It’s familiar ground that Mendes had already tread in 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, but this time his vision is more stark.  More realistic.  More devastating.  It’s by no means an inherently enjoyable experience, but it’s a compelling one that is impeccably crafted– marking a return to form to the aesthetic style that made Mendes a household name.

It’s 1955, and Frank and April Wheeler are surrounded by the trappings of midcentury prosperity.  They have it all: a nice house in the Connecticut suburbs, their youth, two healthy children, and a car.  But, much like their Burnham family counterparts, the Wheelers are stuck in a fundamental state of discontent.  Trying to break out of this funk, April proposes that they sell the house and relocate to Paris, living a romantic life abroad.  As the Wheelers make preparations, a surprise pregnancy and the opportunity of advancement at Frank’s job threaten to derail their plans, and subsequently, their marriage.  The story takes life advancements that would normally be greeted with great celebration, and twists them into harbingers of doom.

Having a reputation for coaxing impeccable performances from actors, Mendes has no trouble assembling an eclectic and powerful cast.  In their first team-up since 1997’s TITANIC, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet project an image of success while wallowing in crushing uncertainty and doubt– indeed, the movie isn’t even five minutes in when they begin bickering and fighting with each other.  As Frank, DiCaprio uses his natural charm and intelligence to duplicitous effect.  A stymied husband who feels himself becoming slowly boxed in by his responsibilities, Frank lashes out with a passion that he’s unable to channel into a positive marriage.  He makes a point of forcing his wife to talk to him whenever he senses something is wrong, but it’s more so out of maintaining the status quo of a happy home instead of getting to the real root of the problem.  As Frank’s wife, April, Winslet signifies the burgeoning independence and assertion of femininity that the 1960’s would bring.  It is she who proposes the relocation to Paris, and who steers the course of events that lead to the film’s tragic denouement.  Together, they strike up a very different dynamic than they did as “Jack & Rose”, conjuring up an acidic chemistry that singes the screen.  As most of the film’s development plays out in dialogue, DiCaprio and Winslet are given no small amount of scene-chewing dialogue (most of which unfortunately comes off as on-the-nose and/or expositional).  Their conflict feels very stage-y, but that’s to be expected from a director already well-known for his theater productions.

The supporting cast is filled out with less-known actors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t meet or exceed the quality of performance by the two leads.  Yet another TITANIC co-star, Kathy Bates, plays the Wheeler’s real-estate agent-turned-neighbor/friend.  She becomes one of the sole female friends in April’s life, which is alienating due to her significant age difference.  Bates performs admirably, and looks like she fits right in with the midcentury time period.  Michael Shannon, one of my favorite actors ever, plays her son– a socially strange, fidgety man with a history of mental problems.  Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here, Shannon is absolutely magnetic.  In a film full of self-deluded characters, leave it to the “crazy one” to be the voice of reason and logic, unafraid to call out their bullshit right to their faces. Shannon’s work on REVOLUTIONARY ROAD stands out as one of the best in a career dominated by amazing, memorable performances,

As the Wheeler’s only neighbors of the same age, Shep (David Harbour) and Milly (Kathryn Hahn) are their closest friends and confidants.  Harbour is incredible as a man harboring a long-held yearning for April, and who resents himself for it.  I’m not too familiar with his other work, but his performance here guarantees that I’ll be paying attention the next time he shows up in a film.  Dylan Baker, previously collaborating with Mendes in 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION, plays Frank’s work colleague– an effete, fancy boy that always sports a bow tie.  It’s not too dissimilar from his role in ROAD TO PERDITION, but Baker gives his performance a unique and memorable quality, mostly informed by the presence of that bow tie.  Doe-eyed Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary film director Elia Kazan) plays an impressionable young secretary that Frank sleeps with throughout the film.  Her role is small, but her participation will have big consequences for Frank’s downfall.

Working again with Director of Photography Roger Deakins, Mendes returns to his classical, minimalist roots.  Creating an Anamorphic image that’s high in contrast, with saturated colors comprised of warm, neutral tones, Mendes establishes a realistic and tangible atmosphere.  He also uses a grey/beige palette to illustrate the monotony of the Wheeler’s existence: the colorless house, the sea of grey suits disembarking from commuter trains, etc.  Compositions are wider and artfully-framed, achieved through the strategic use of tripod, dolly, and Steadicam shots.  As the marital discord grows, Mendes lets handheld camerawork become increasingly prevalent, signifying the characters’ chaotic state of mind.  The production design, taking a page from the popular TV show MAD MEN, is impeccable in its period authenticity and dressing.  All in all, Mendes creates a sumptuous visual look upon which to highlight the internal decay of his characters.

Thomas Newman returns to score the proceedings, crafting music that, much like his earlier work for Mendes, deals in piano chords and swelling string instruments.  However, he also infuses an element of abstract ambience, which adds a brooding nature to the story.  The rest of the soundtrack is sourced from an eclectic mix of period pop songs that give a realistic sense of the era and the national mood.

In telling the tale of a pair of bohemian scenesters turned conventional suburbanites, Mendes is certainly risking re-treadingAMERICAN BEAUTY territory.  However, there’s no Lester Burnham-esque reawakening or rejuvenation to be had here– only endless misery and suffering.   Mendes’ tone is dead serious with very little levity, and as a result, it’s a tough experience to sit through.  The characters are energized by their romantic fantasy of an idealistic Paris that probably doesn’t exist.  However, their dreams are done in by pragmatism and a sense of adult responsibility.  These are all qualities that are encouraged in modern notions of adulthood, usually as a way to better ourselves.  In REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, however, those some life-affirming notions become a death sentence.  The characters seek comfort in the danger/excitement of extramarital affairs, but even those prove to be of no energizing value in the end.  (Also, is it just me, or is every male in the film a premature ejaculator?  I understand that period accuracy dictates the mentality that the man’s satisfaction was the priority, but….damn, they’re quick).

Watching REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, I’m reminded of Mena Suvari’s character in AMERICAN BEAUTY and her standout line: “there’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary”.  The Wheelers adopt this attitude as their guiding philosophy, raging against the machine at every opportunity– even when the machine is themselves.  Mendes makes no bones about the film’s dour attitude– it’s a gorgeous-looking, yet incredibly ugly, portrait of marital strife.  However, returning to the formalist style that he eschewed in 2005’s JARHEAD, Mendes is back in his dramaturgical comfort zone.  It’s not his greatest work, but it is certainly consistent within a canon known for its sterling quality.

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.