Friday, April 8, 2011

Not so "Revolutionary" after all

Revolutionary Road
US, 2008
Directed by Sam Mendes

Having never read the Richard Yates book on which Revolutionary Road is based, I can't really comment on how good or bad of an adaptation the film might be. What I can say is that its frustrating opening sequence, with an unnecessarily abrupt jump forward in time, does little to bring the viewer into the film's world -- to say nothing of how unlikeable it makes both main characters seem. Perhaps this happens in the book, too, but it simply doesn't work on screen, and is not a promising set-up for the movie that follows, which has a hard time bringing us closer than the arm's-length this introduction allows.

By way of synopsis, there's really not much to say: Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a longshoreman who never wanted to be like his salesman dad, meets April (Kate Winslet), who's studying to be an actress, at a party. They dance, and immediately become a bickering married couple stuck in a life they never chose, due to the kids they didn't totally want and the irresistible pressure to conform. Then there's the inevitable infidelity, guilt, and misdirected hostility that leads to a semi-permanent state of passive-aggressive war. Tired of fighting and guilty for getting pregnant and forcing Frank to become what he hates, April proposes that they move to Paris and start again, with her supporting the family as a secretary while Frank finds himself. In terms of plot, that's really about it.

The film feels somewhat hollow, and I struggled to figure out why. The acting is fine, Sam Mendes's direction is mostly appropriate for the material, the cinematography (by the wonderful Roger Deakins) is crisp, cold, and constrained. So why was I so unmoved? It may be due, in part, to there ultimately being very little at stake. Road was marketed as a depressing film, and it very clearly sets its world up as a depressing place. Because the film does such a good job showing how the repressive morality of the day forced people to hide their true feelings in public, it's often hard to believe a thing the characters say regarding their wants and desires. That means the fantasy of an escape to Paris never feels like it has any chance of being realized, even for the characters themselves, which sucks the tension right out of the film. We eventually do come to empathize with April and Frank, but it's hard to root for them when we're certain we'd be backing the wrong horse.

Only one character, played Michael Shannon, has no problem speaking his mind regardless of who's around, and he's problematic as well. Shannon, who was Oscar nominated for his role, most certainly does an effective job playing someone seemingly driven to madness simply by living in the 1950s. However, it's disappointing that his character seems to have little reason to be around other than to embody the "Crazy Person Who Sees The Truth" trope... which is unnecessary when the two main characters already detest their miserable lot and yearn for escape. They see through the BS, too, and are no more empowered to escape it than Shannon's character -- and he's confined to an asylum for most of his days.

But all of that being said, some of the film's problems don't lie within the film itself at all. Rather, they come from the media context in which the film came to be made. The ground this story covers might have been fresh when the book came out, but we've had 40+ years of "suburban hell"-style stories in the interim. Because so little of what this film has to say hasn't already been said at least as well somewhere else, I couldn't help but think, "Why? Why make this movie now?" Heck, TV's Mad Men had already begun tackling the morally-similar early Sixties by the time Road came out, and has done a far better job playing with the same themes over four seasons. Road makes them turgid after just two hours.

This is, ultimately, the film's undoing. Movies that cover well-worn ground don't have to feel unnecessary if there's some spark, some hidden heart beating beneath the familiar surface. But Revolutionary Road often seems to be all surface. People come and go and things happen not because of any burning narrative need, but because it just seems like they should. The main characters' affairs are both perfunctory and utterly predictable, and have almost no important effect on the rest of the story. The scant few moments of empathy we get don't make up for a strange sense of distance and the feeling that the film's pervasive pessimism robs its conclusion of its rightful impact. Maybe a few decades ago, in different hands, the film would have met a better fate.

Instead, it just makes me realize how funny it is that something that was once revolutionary can, in time, become like the image of Che Guevara pasted on an undergrad's dorm wall: flat and devoid of power.


  1. Your review is pretty much how I felt about the film just from seeing the previews. I have had it on my cue forever and keep moving it down. Maybe it is time to delete it?

  2. @spurge

    I mean, look... it's not a BAD movie, by any means. It's well-made and perfectly fine to watch. Some people found themselves moved by it, so perhaps I'm an emotionless robot, or simply have never been in the type of relationship that these folks have, and so can't empathize.

    All I know is that, aside from a few moments of genuine concern, I felt like I was detached from the things happening on the screen, and knew where they were going before they got there. Like I said, we've kind of heard it all before when it comes to the suburbs. So it's up to you if you want to take it out of your queue. You might well get more out of it than I did.