The final battle of the American revolution wasn’t fought with wooden muskets on blood-soaked knolls, but waged through the slow, collective acceptance of the falsehood that it is better to be comfortable than to be brave. “Revolutionary Road” depicts two fighters on the end of this war front, their dreams and hopes serving as weapons that stand no chance against blitzkrieg of obligations to conform. The biggest tragedy in suburban wartime narrative isn’t that Frank and April Wheeler lost, but that they never realized they were fighting on the same side.
Richard Yates first penned this story in 1962 to critical acclaim, with the country’s bravest and boldest authors giving praise to the book’s harsh depiction of suburban life in the 1950s. Literary arguments against suburbia’s follies are commonplace now, but it’s important to remember that Yates’ “Revolutionary Road” was really one of the first major works to argue that settling down wasn’t that far off from resigning to death.
That early awareness makes “Revolutionary Road” a story worth our attention, that even if we choose to still live a life of Toyota Camry’s, J.C. Penney’s and Panera Bread’s, that we at least acknowledge and question the forces that brought us to our Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich in the first place.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Wheeler and Kate Winslet as April Wheeler in Sam Mendes’ film adaptation of Yates’ story. Frank woos April at a party with his intellect and charm. He’s been places, he’s met people, he’s seen and done things that most residents of 1950s New York City could only fantasize. They’re a couple forged by dreams and ideas, a shared sparkle in their eyes guiding them towards a future where their only obligation is the satisfaction of their souls.
The couple dances at a party, their moment of happiness squandered when the movie cuts a few years into the future. April has just finished a hammy performance during a community theater play, with a beleaguered, embarrassed Frank hesitantly clapping from the audience. April’s disappointment in herself breeds silence and contempt, prompting a bitter argument with the always-verbal Frank. We’re not even 10 minutes into the film and Mendes and writer Justin Haythe have already made things perfectly clear: Frank and April are not meant to be together.
Watching “Revolutionary Road” as the dissolution of the American marriage is a faulty exercise. Frank and April are creative fanatics with deep artistic tendencies, each carrying an infallible ability to be immensely passionate about anything. In the early days of their romance, Frank or April could have fallen in love with a tuna sub just as easily as they fall head over heels for each other. If their devotion to something ever withered, they could sow loving roots in a new person or idea just two pots over. But “Revolutionary Road” puts Frank and April in a new conundrum: discovering their passion has died, but no longer having a means of escape.
“Pulp Fiction” taught us that in France, Quarter Pounders are called Royals with Cheese, but in “Revolutionary Road,” the English translation for McGuffin is still Paris. The City of Lights illuminates the last flickers of hope in Frank and April. It’s the answer to Frank’s weary job and the solution to the agonizing neighbors like Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) who beckon at April’s kitchen door. The apparent stuckness that Frank and April were drowning in is not as murky as they first thought.
Michael Shannon’s character John Givings praises the couple’s idea. He’s a bit of an oddball, a mathematician subject to the horrendous shock therapy that crippled so many non-crazy souls in the 1950s. John’s temperament and emotions are always in flux, but he still managed to reach the steady, sane conclusion that the Wheelers did, that living your life is if it were already over is nothing more than delayed suicide.
Shortly after the not-so-chance encounter with John, the Paris plan begins to unravel. Frank is offered a promotion, April gets pregnant, with too much happening at once to justify a vagabond existence in Europe. April’s disappointment festers into rage as she and Frank spar using verbal jabs that leave deep emotional scars. In the end, we’re left with a conclusion that is heartbreaking, but the only way things could have ever been.
“Revolutionary Road” is a mighty tale that wears a discount suit, a film that forces ourselves to peer at our reflections and question if we like what we see. Mendes bring the same sense of foreboding marital falsehoods that he did in “American Beauty,” a storyteller shining a light on a hidden secret that we all regretfully share. Thomas Newman composes a sauntering score that evokes the sense of a eulogy, his beautiful harmonies always cloaked in cul-de-sac tragedies.
But it’s DiCaprio and Winslet who are the core of “Revolutionary Road’s” greatness. The two shared one of Hollywood’s most storied romances in “Titanic.” But “Revoultionary Road” forces the duo to play contrived, fearful characters. They’re unlikable individuals whose only true bravery is that they admit just how much they hate their lives and themselves.
Frank and April are the ultimate argument that the belief in an idea, no matter how passionate or powerful, still will be crushed by the unforgiving forces of society. They are fighters at the end of a war with no strength left inside them. And instead of walking away from the front lines, this creative couple turned their guns on each other in a final act of misplaced glory.