Everyone's cage looks different. April Wheeler's is a plain, white Cape Cod with blood-red shudders that nests atop a manicured lawn in the suburbs. It's not just the house that's holding April down, though. She also feels constrained by her dissatisfied husband, their needy children, and the unfulfilled dreams she left in her wake.
Welcome to Revolutionary Road, the feel-miserable movie of 2008. For their post-Titanic reunion, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have teamed with American Beauty director Sam Mendes (also Winslet's husband) on a dour, shrill adaptation of Richard Yates' respected novel about an unhappy couple steadily sinking in the quicksand of their discontent. Article continues below
Road takes place in the mid-1950s, where newlyweds Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) have moved to a prototypical suburban abode on the street of the title. There are multiple meanings to the moniker, of course. Frank and April only agree on the move after promising each other they'll avoid the suburb's trappings. Their cavalier attitude and disdain for societal norms firmly plants them in the free-spirited 1960s, ahead of the curve. Frank even angrily dismisses what he calls this little "trap" in the first of several arguments with April, though he could be referring to suburbia, their marriage, their chosen lifestyle or, most likely, all of the above.
Frank and April are unhappy at the start of Road, and things don't improve. She's a struggling stage actress. At least she has aspirations. Frank has no defined path. He listlessly mopes through workdays at the same faceless company that employed his father for decades. It's heartbreaking how Frank feels so dead at the age of 30. And DiCaprio hangs resentment and defeat on choice lines, as when Frank admits, "Who ever said I was meant to be a big deal, anyway?"
But April suggests a ray of hope. She convinces Frank to pick up and move to Paris with dreams of starting over. April agrees to work so she can support the couple while Frank discovers his "calling." Is this the helping hand Road needs to pull it from its crippling funk?
Mendes would almost have us believe it. One of the director's earliest shots continues to resonate with me weeks after having seen the film. It's Frank, standing in New York's Grand Central Station on the afternoon he has decided to quit his meaningless desk job. As the commuters steadily stream by him, Frank stands still and stares. Freedom dances across DiCaprio's face, and we can almost see an emotional weight being lifted from his shoulders as he realizes, "Their lifestyle, it's not for me."
Foolishly, I believed him -- and the film. I viewed this sequence as an exit sign beckoning Frank, a means to a better end. But Road chooses bitter over better. Before they can escape their straightjacket of a life, Frank is tempted with a promotion, April gets pregnant with their third child, and these distractions become hooks that sink into their flesh and ground them in their sad reality. The film sheds happiness in favor of a cynical, treacherous slog toward anger, resentment, fear, loathing, and death (in both literal and figurative senses).
Appealing to a melancholic crowd isn't a problem. Many choose to see films that make them feel empty and sad, and Revolutionary Road scorches with the intensity of malaise, and the resentment that entrapment can trigger.
But like so many awards-baiters this year -- from Milk to Doubt -- it is an acting showcase that suffers from narrative shortcomings. Plus, I never once forgot that DiCaprio and Winslet were acting (with a capital "A") in these discontented roles. Still, it's not often you see someone call DiCaprio out, going toe-to-toe with the versatile performer and often winning the upper hand. No, not Winslet. I'm talking about Michael Shannon, who decimates scenery as the brutally honest and off-his-rocker son of a local realtor played by Kathy Bates. Shannon is the mirror that turns the miserable truth of Frank and April's existence back on them, and he's a bright spot in this otherwise turgid, depressing drama.
On a side note, Road does offer a brief insight into the ups-and-downs of a film critic's daily cycle. Those of us who watch films thrive on anticipation. We obsess over trailers, absorb almost every preview, and comment on projects both pending and playing. But the cycle can be vicious. Sometimes we have such high hopes. And it hurts when those expectations aren't met. Sadly, Road reminds me how, in 120 minutes, a picture can go from "I can not wait to see that" to "I never want to see that again."