When Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet first made eyes at each other in Titanic, we emptied our wallets, shed some tears, and were assured that our collective hearts would go on. Eleven years later, the actors’ cinematic reunion in Revolutionary Road has set off another round of gushing, both from fans who’d spent the past decade wishing they could unsink that ship and from the actors themselves, who proved in a December Entertainment Weekly Q&A that they’re such gag-inducingly good friends they can finish each other’s sentences.
Onscreen, however, the familiarity of their coupling only highlights Revolutionary Road’s bleakness: Even if the boat hadn’t gone down, the film tells us, these lovebirds were still doomed.
The suburbs replace the sea as the unforgiving lifeblood-sucker in Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ partially autobiographical novel. It’s a perspective Mendes knows well, having already mined a modern-day version of cul-de-sac ennui in his 1999 debut, American Beauty. Both films attempt to dispel the idea that happiness and reality are mutually exclusive: Are people crazy if they want out of a suburban lifestyle, or crazy if they’re willing to stay in it?
Here, the inaction takes place in the ’50s, as Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet) graduate from starry-eyed newlyweds who think they’re special to workaday parents who realize they’re not. Mendes, working off a script by relative newcomer Justin Haythe, concisely delivers this message even before the title card appears. Frank is sitting in a school auditorium, thinking back to the day he met April at a party and she told him she wanted to be an actress. Now it’s years later and she’s in a crappy regional theater production whose highlight is its closing curtain. Frank’s face is already pained when he hears the people behind him murmuring about how awful the play was; April cries afterward in her makeshift dressing room but cautiously brightens when Frank steps toward her. “Well, I guess it wasn’t a triumph or anything, was it?” he says in his best attempt at reassurance.
They’re not exactly the words April was looking for, so, consciously or not, she picks a minor fight. On the drive home, Frank tries again, despite her pleas that he just let it go. This time, it’s his turn to vent, yelling about how it’s not his fault that she never realized her dream, that he refuses to be her whipping boy. The argument spills into a screaming match on the side of the road and crests into near violence when April pushes Frank’s final button: “Look at you and tell me how by any stretch of the imagination you can call yourself a man!” Whoops, too far—April ducks as Frank’s fist hits the car instead of her jaw. Then they take a minute in stunned silence before starting home again.
The sequence is vicious, unsettling, and to many viewers, probably a little too familiar. There are still plenty of battles to come throughout the film, but Revolutionary Road isn’t all misery. And the misery that does, admittedly, so thoroughly soak the parable of Frank and April should serve to teach those of us who could use an eye-opener: There but for the grace of God, etc. Two kids into their marriage, both of the Wheelers know but don’t necessarily confront the fact that they’re in a rut. Frank, who once imagined himself an artistic type, is languishing at an office job with Knox Business Machines, the same company his father worked for. On Frank’s 30th birthday, he takes a young secretary on a several-martini lunch and then to bed, telling her after she’s too drunk to understand that he used to look at his dad and think, “I hope to Christ I don’t end up like you.” April, too, is bored of tidying the house and tolerating the visits of her shiny real-estate agent, Helen (Kathy Bates), who has always told the Wheelers that the white-clapboard house on Revolutionary Road was meant for a “special” couple such as themselves and now considers them friends.
So after thinking back to a time when Frank used to go on and on about France, explaining that “people are alive there, not like here,” April makes a pitch to move their family to Paris. They have plenty of savings, and secretaries make a lot of money in Europe, she says, which would give Frank time to think about who he is and what he wants. She points out, quite correctly, that they “bought into this ridiculous delusion that you have to resign from life” once you have children and that they’ve been “punishing each other for it.” It’s a pretty and inspirational speech—at least until the semi-retch-inducing moment when April, after Frank questions whether he has anything worth nurturing, grasps his face and tells him, “You’re the most beautiful and wonderful thing in the world. You’re a man!” It may be the ’50s, but such drivel would more characteristically come out of Helen’s mouth, not April’s.
Still, you see the joy on the Wheelers’ faces when they decide to go and you root for them, especially when everyone they break the news to reacts with either bafflement or disbelief. The triumph of Revolutionary Road—even if it comes with the asterisk of treading old territory—comes not only in its honest reflection of married life at its worst, but also in its message that people are largely in control of their lives. The Wheelers’ neighbors, Shep and Milly (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), are stunned when April tells them they’re going to live in Paris and ask, “But what for?” You may infer that they see the Wheelers’ decision as a criticism of their own white-picket lives. But mostly you pity their limited viewpoint, their inability to understand what April means when she says, “We’re not getting any younger, and we don’t want life to just pass us by.”
Revolutionary Road slides backward, though, when an unexpected pregnancy gives Frank an excuse to question their plans. (In reality, he was terrified all along.) He soldiers on through a sea of fedoras and trench coats—a great image of conformity that Mendes repeats just often enough—while April turns Stepford-like as she tries to repress her unhappiness. Throughout the film, a soothsayer appears in the unlikely and wonderful form of Helen’s son, John (Michael Shannon), a former mathematician and current mental patient whose shock treatments don’t prevent him from analyzing modern life as an airless equation of House + Kids = Job You Hate + Spouse You’re Afraid to Leave. Or is it that his removal from society gave him clarity?
DiCaprio and Winslet will be garnering most of the praise here, but for all their shouting and soul-baring, Shannon’s performance is the most explosive if only because of the power packed into his limited role. As Revolutionary Road’s bluster burns out, it nearly seems as if the story is going to end on a cautiously optimistic note. But then the film is capped by a scene that dials down to complete silence, and it ends up being the most devastating of them all.