Revolutionary Road was a much-praised film from 2008, which garnered a myriad of award nominations, but only really achieved one ‘major’ success at the Golden Globes. And that speaks volumes to me. It’s a glossy, beautiful film with some terrific performances from a stellar cast, but ultimately left me cold…
April and Frank Wheeler are a lovely couple. They seem to be a living embodiment of The American Dream. But, er, they’re not. This groundbreaking premise plunges the viewer into the depths of their despair from practically the second scene of the movie, and leaves us there. It’s serious and it’s worthy and it tackles important issues about marriage and relationships and American suburbia and attitudes to the family and… woohoo.
About half-way through the film, April and Frank are arguing (again), and one of them (April I think, but I can’t rememeber, it’s probably not that important) shouts “for once can we just stop talking?”. At which point I raised my eyes to the heavens and cried out HALLELUJAH! Just. Stop. Talking. PLEASE.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a LOT that is good about this film. Leo and Kate are terrific, although I definitely thought he was stronger here, despite my long-avowed love for the fragrant Mrs Mendes. Indeed, it perhaps says something about the Movie Industry that she received multiple award nominations for this performance, whereas Mr DiCaprio received, er, none. OK, so he didn’t have to look haggard or self-harm, but he is terrific.
It’s beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, with some striking scenes and images, especially of Frank’s daily commute, and the social awkwardness of the suburban 1950s. For me the strongest part of the film by a country mile is the role played by Michael Shannon, tremendous as a kind of Shakespearean Fool, saying all the things we know are lurking beneath the glossy veneer.
“Hopeless emptiness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”
In only a couple of brief scenes he tears asunder the delusions of not only Frank and April’s American Dream, but also the entire film. It’s cold, empty and doesn’t seem to stand for much.
My main complaints are
- I never liked Frank and April. We didn’t get enough of their previous happiness and self-proclaimed ‘specialness’. Within minutes of the start the film forces us to see how unhappy they are: there are constant references to ‘why are we living here?’ when in fact they just seem to me to be deeply miserable, self-pitying narcissists who aren’t very deserving of my sympathy.
- They have two children, but we barely see them, I’m not even sure they do much more than sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and they never feature in Frank and April’s oh-so-depressing-suburban drudgery. There’s no school run, no 5am-wake-ups. The house is spotless, devoid of toys or any signs they even live there…
- It just seems like a film very conscious of its own importance. Many scenes are hugely stage-y, lines weighed down with portentous pauses and beats as though the writer and director WANT us to dwell on their gravitas. And Mendes employs (again) his near trademark mood-music-score that hints at gentle comfort, but you know actually means ‘this isn’t going to end well’.
I felt like I was a fly on the wall, divorced from the people and their stories, observing from a distance that was both physical and emotional. So when April finally takes a decisive action, I was shocked, but not involved or invested in the action or its consequences.
All of this is done much better by MAD MEN. Watch January Jones as Betty Draper to see the tragedy and claustrophobia of suburbia, and John Hamm as Don Draper for the man who seemingly ‘has it all’ but doesn’t feel fulfilled by it. I know it’s a TV series and has the luxury of time to create its world and depths for the character arcs. But I’d much rather spend 10 hours with them than 2 with Sam Mendes’ take on The American Nightmare.