REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, directed by Sam Mendes, written by Justin Haythe, 119 minutes, rated R.
The new Sam Mendes movie, “Revolutionary Road,” stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in their first pairing since 1997’s “Titanic,” in which their love-struck characters were undone by one infamous sinking ship.
Now, 11 years out, the news is a surprise. Apparently, their hearts did go on — and we’re all better for it. “Revolutionary Road” is one of 2008’s best films. It will be nominated across the board for Academy Awards and, if the Academy can get behind its ending (which is just right, but which history proves Academy members usually shy away from), it just might take its share of them.
Justin Haythe based his script on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, and what he and Mendes (“American Beauty”) mine from that influential book is something smaller, though no less riveting. This is a movie about life in suburban Connecticut during the mid-1950s, the costs involved in giving yourself over to the illusion of the American Dream, and how all of the expectations pinned to that dream must be handled by the movie’s two main characters.
They are Frank (DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Winslet), smart, good-looking people who meet at a gathering one night, share a few drinks and then each other’s stories. April aspires to be an actress. Frank isn’t exactly sure what he wants to be, but he has charm, an agreeably boyish face and, as far as April can tell, plenty of untapped potential.
In a matter of movie minutes, they’re married, have two children, and are living in a crisp white Colonial on Revolutionary Road. There, everything appears to be tidy on the outside — nice hedges, fresh paint, newly clipped grass — but inside is another story.
April is performing in community theater — and failing. Frank is working in Manhattan at Knox Business Machines, where his father toiled for 25 years as a salesman, never realizing a promotion. Neither is happy, especially with their crumbling relationship (their fights are as epic as anything in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), but here’s the thing. In their neighborhood, people look upon them as movie stars. They’re viewed as being so vivid, sophisticated and special, they’re referred to as such. So, why don’t they see these qualities in themselves?
One day, April does. A depressed intellectual with the heart of a romantic (a deadly combination if there ever was one), she decides that she and Frank should quit the States and move the family to Paris, where Frank once claimed he wanted to live.
She has it all worked out. While she makes a good salary as a government secretary, Frank will take time off to find himself. Paris isn’t just a city to her, but an ideal, a way to recharge their dead lives while there’s still time to do so. They will thrive in the City of Lights because they refused to conform to the growing movement of consumerist suburbanism, and more specifically, because they were brave enough to move away from it before it consumed them entirely.
It’s so simple to April. They will become the best of what others see in them, and also what April saw in themselves when they were younger and first were dating. She is so confident that they must do this, she convinces Frank that doing anything else is akin to living a lie. He agrees with her, and their relationship soars. Suddenly, they’re having sex again. The laughter is back. What a relief it is to believe in themselves again, to be that happy, shining couple others see in them and envy.
Only it isn’t that simple, is it?
For all sorts of reasons that won’t be revealed here (it seems otherwise, but I’ve only explored a fraction of the dense plot), leaving Revolutionary Road becomes increasingly difficult, but no less desirable. For Frank and April — especially April — Paris is akin to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” She can see it and feel it, but can she reach it? And what happens to her if she can’t, to quote Fitzgerald, “stretch out her arms farther” to do so?
Throughout “Revolutionary Road” — which Mendes directs with the whiff of a stage production, a decision that assists in separating the Wheelers even further from reality — the performances are sterling, and not just from Winslet and DiCaprio, who are primed for Academy Award nominations.
A supporting turn from Michael Shannon as John, the mentally disturbed son of the Wheelers’ friends Helen (Kathy Bates) and Howard Givings (Richard Easton), is searing and edgy. His mind has been fried with dozens of electric shock treatments, but it’s still keen with insights, which he hurls at the Wheelers, judging them in ways that they privately judge themselves.
Shannon’s John is the antithesis of the suburban ideal — nothing about him is false, proper or refined. He is the truth standing tall in the room, the elephant who demands to be heard, and he speaks the truth freely and cruelly, further closing the book on two lives that barely can stand judgment at all.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.