Friday, June 4, 2010

"Knowing what you've got, knowing what you need, knowing what you can do without - That's inventory control."

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Justin Haythe (screenplay), Richard Yates (novel)
Music by: Thomas Newman
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour


The time is 1955. The place is an unknown town in Connecticut. We are greeted with soft piano music while a voice begins to sing. The song appropriately fits the time and immediately begins to set a mood. Thru the bustle of a party we see April (Winslet) sipping a drink with a cigarette in hand. At the opposite end of the room stands Frank (DiCaprio), in mid conversation with some other people, but he quickly becomes distracted by the beautiful girl he sees across the way. Their eyes meet and they both fight back a smile.

Next we see them engaging in conversation....

"So what do you do?"
"I'm studying to be an actress. You?"
"I'm a longshoremen."
"No, I mean really."
"I mean really too."

She laughs.

"Although starting next Monday I'm doing something a little more glamorous..."
"What's that?"
"Night cashier at a cafeteria."

She laughs again.

"I don't mean how you make money. I mean, what are you interested in?"
"Honey, if I had an answer to that one, I bet I'd bore us both to death in half-an-hour."

Again, she laughs.

Now we see them dancing and gazing deeply into each other's eyes....

We see Frank seated in an audience, watching his wife April on stage taking a curtain call, to scattered applause. Patrons all around Frank seem to be skewering the production already, specifically April. Frank eventually makes his way backstage to greet his wife. She emerges from the bathroom appearing to have finished crying as she tries to compose herself. "Well I guess it wasn't a, uh, triumph or anything, was it?" Frank tenderly says as he places a comforting hand on April's shoulder. After debating whether they are going to go out with their neighbor friends, John and Milly Givings (Harbour and Hahn respectively), they take a long and silent walk back to their car. "Well I mean it baby, you were the only person in that play." Frank tries again. This time his comforting tactic leads him to call her fellow actors "amateurs" and he stresses how he feels bad for her since she studied to be an actress. April, clearly not wanting to talk about it, mutters her responses until she finally demands Frank not talk about it any more. He pulls the car off to the side of a busy road. This time, he figures, he'll physically console her as he leans over to try and hold her. April, again clearly not in the mood, denies his advance and Frank is now set off in full "Comfort Mode":

"Okay, it strikes me that there is a considerable amount of bullshit going on here and there is just a few things I'd like to clear up, alright? Number one: it's not my fault that the play was lousy. Okay? Number two: it sure as hell isn't my fault that you didn't turn out to be an actress, and the sooner you get over that little piece of soap-opera, the better off we're both going to be. Number three: I don't happen to fit the role of dumb, insensitive, suburban husband. You've been trying to lay that crap on me since we moved out here and I'll be damned if I wear it!"

By the time Frank gets to number four April has stormed her way out of the car. Over the next few minutes we see the two of them have it out on the side of the road. Frank trying to get her back in the car and April wanting to escape. Perhaps, in their own way, they are both wanting to escape. As these things tend to do, Frank and April escalate their spat into name calling, to the point where Frank nearly hits April, his fist clenched and in mid air, but he stops himself. April flinches away and Frank lets it out on the top of the car. "Don't look at me that way April...." replies Frank as he regains composure. April just wants to go home so they eventually make their way into the car, sit in silence for a beat, and drive off.

It's not until that point that we see the title across the screen, accompanied by Thomas Newman's beautiful theme. The first time I saw this movie I thought, "This is going to be a roller coaster...." and after my most recent viewing I realize how perfect an opening for this movie it is.

We know who we're dealing with. What we're dealing with. It becomes more clear as we see the beautiful home they own. It's the suburban "American Dream" all right. A beautiful and quant home situated in a beautiful and quiet neighborhood nestled amidst a nearby woodsy area. Frank's job requires he travel to the city, New York to be precise, as he works on the 14th floor of the Knox building. You're never more aware that it is the middle of the 1950's than when you see his daily trek to work. All the men are adorned in typical 50's attire, every one of them wearing fedoras and skinny ties, suits and carrying briefcases. It's a backdrop of tweed and plaid, colored in grey and brown and beige. Everyone seems to smoke and all the secretaries are, of course, women complete with dresses and pearl necklaces. One of them even catches Frank's eye and he wastes little time in asking her for a mid-day drink, which turns in to all day drinks, which can only end in one thing.

When I first saw this movie I thought it was trying to be a satire in a way. I don't have any real life memories of the 50's, obviously, but everything they were showing seemed to be conjured up in all the sitcoms of the era. The more the movie progresses, and certainly after my second viewing, I realize that it isn't satirical at all. If I didn't know any better I'd say they were making a documentary. While the time is certainly an integral part of the story, and provides the perfect backdrop for this kind of story, it isn't about the 50's. Revolutionary Road, in the words of it's own director, is about a love story, albeit a broken one.

While Frank is off at work we see April tending to the house throughout the day. Taking out the garbage, cleaning the dishes, fulfilling the housewife role. With every shot, though, it seems as though her true feelings about her perfect little suburban "American Dream" are seeping thru. She is lonely and empty. It's not until she sees an old picture of Frank, with his dad, and reminisces upon a time when they first talked about that actual picture that something changes in her. The picture is of particular importance as in the background you can clearly see the Eiffel Tower. "Maybe I'll take you with me huh? I'm going back the first chance I get. I tell ya, people are alive there. Not like here." says Frank from a memory that, now, seems far too long ago. "All I know, April, is that I want to feel things. Really feel them. Ya know? How's that for an ambition?" To which April replies, "Frank Wheeler....I think you're the most interesting person I've ever met."

When Frank returns home, to his surprise, he sees April looking particularly stunning. She cuts him off at the door and bids him to wait outside till she calls him. After a brief moment he hears her and enters the house. Everything is dark except for a faint flickering light in the kitchen. April, and their two kids, stand huddled around a birthday cake atop the dinner table and begin to sing to daddy. The reaction that DiCaprio has to this touching moment, especially in light of his infidelity earlier in the day (on his birthday no less), is the stuff that acting is made of. If your eyes don't begin to well up you need to check your pulse.

The movie begins to take off when April explains that she wants to move to Paris. She'll be the one with a job so that Frank can have all the time he needs to finally do the things he's always wanted. Of course he is playfully skeptical at first but her sincerity shines through. They have enough saved to last half a year while she gets a job. Frank, eventually, concedes and the plan is set.

The next day off to work is decisively more upbeat than the previous one we witnessed. There is a lightness to Frank's step and he whistles his whole way to his desk. Word trickles thru all the appropriate grapevines that Frank and April are leaving the States. His coworkers don't believe him and their neighbors seem skeptical to say the least. The movie follows this struggling couple thru the summer of 1955 as they seem to be on their way to finding romance once again and fulfilling their long lost desires. Their overly friendly, and loquacious, landlord Helen Givings (Bates) stops by to offer a plant to April and see if she and her husband and son John (Shannon), who has been serving time at a psychiatric clinic, can stop by for dinner. April agrees. The following dinner scene is nothing if not completely stolen by Michael Shannon (which he will do again later in one of the more memorable scenes) given his character's nature. In fact, for being the "crazy guy", his character is wonderfully written as a means to provide the "truth" for all the characters in the movie. More on that to come....

Dealing with inadequacies of being a man (remember the time) and pressures from his bosses/co-workers and an offer to take a job making more money, Frank begins to have second thoughts on a new life in Paris. It's revealed several times that Frank can't stand his job, one which his father essentially had years before him, and how he always vowed as a kid to not end up like his dad. Yet, in spite of all that, the fire and passion that Frank had, once upon a time, seems to have been snuffed, and he'd rather go thru the motions. It's not until April drops a bombshell on Frank, which leads to a heated argument, that the hope for true happiness for these two could easily slip away.

Ultimately RR comes to a sobering gut-punch of a climax as the two main characters are left contemplating their life up to this point. The film is an exploration of fear and expectation. Of love and love lost. It could even be labeled somewhat of a period piece. A time in which people of my generation, especially growing up, always looked at as though it were sort of a fairy tale. Our parents speak fondly of that bygone era when things were simpler. When music was music and kids still had respect for their elders. We lose sight of the fact that, even then, people dealt with the same kind of troubles that we face on a daily basis and that those before them dealt with. RR certainly doesn't attempt to glorify any of the people in this movie, yet it sets out to paint as honest a picture as possible. Does that mean every husband was sleeping around? Or that every housewife just wanted to escape it all and hit the reset button? Certainly not. Instead, it chooses to peel back that curtain of fairy tale-dom that we believe as kids. A curtain, that certainly speaks to a part of that time, but doesn't represent the whole of it. RR certainly is a tragic love story, personified in one of the last shots we see of Frank we see him running wildly down the street they live on, appropriately called Revolutionary Road, with no end in sight. Why is he running? What is he running from? He's just running.

Frank and April aren't bad people they are just flawed. Throughout the movie we are reminded why they got together in the first place, and in many ways they work as a couple, but a closer examination reveals the truth. Frank is too afraid to fail. He'd rather settle. Settle for a job he hates as long as it means they have a roof over their head and food to eat. April seems to resent that fact about Frank, rather than proactively try and help, and resents him for getting her pregnant because that "ruined" all her plans. April is making Frank the scapegoat and trying to escape the reality that she had just as much a part to play in everything as he did. What they thought was the right choice and what they really wanted to do are two very different things. All of these hopes and fears have been ruminating for some time now and begin to boil over during the course of the film. In one particular honest moment, April demeans Frank by saying, "You're just a guy who made me laugh at a party once!" A lot of what the characters end up saying to one another, especially in heightened and intense moments, end up being the truth. The hard pill to swallow is that they are saying ugly things. It'd be much easier if we could just assume that life always plays out the way we want it to, but it's simply not the case. While there are plenty of things we simply can't control in life, we do have control over WHAT we do, yet Frank and April seem unwilling to come to terms with their choices. To take responsibility. It creates confusion and resentment amongst the two. Perhaps April sums it up best with another golden line, "Tell me the truth, Frank, remember that? We used to live by it. And you know what's so good about the truth? Everyone knows what it is however long they've lived without it. No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying."

As we all get older we want to know that what we've done up to this present point in time has meant something. We'd all like to think we're doing what we're "meant" to do or what we've always wanted to do. The sad reality is that it hardly ever plays out that way. A theme throughout this movie is one of courage actually. Courage to do what's right. Courage to do what you have always wanted to do. Both the main characters struggle with this in many ways. How can they break the confining structures of the social ladder? Men have to be the bread winner. Women must support them, but in a different way. Settling down with a family and a mortgage by the age 30 is standard. No one takes either April or Frank seriously when they say they are going to go live in Paris. A common response is, "What do they got that we don't have here?" At one point Frank even wonders, "Are Parisians the only ones who know how to live anyway?" implying he has come around, and given in to the fact that, even though he'd rather be in Paris pursuing his dreams, his life is resorted to the hum-drum 9-5 existence he's been droning out in for the past 7 years.

"It takes a backbone to lead the life you want." A rather prophetic line said by April Wheeler.

Another interesting facet to the main characters is that everyone else they know seems to view them as the model of excellence. They have it all. Two beautiful children. The house. The marriage. Their neighbors always refer to them simply as, "The Wheelers" as though that alone makes them great. Even their landlord adores them and praises them constantly. All the adoration seems to have only hurt the Wheeler's in the long run. It's as though they are suffering from some unfulfilled expectation that everyone else, namely society, placed upon them. The weight of it all becoming too much to handle. It isn't until Helen Givings "crazy" son enters the scene and seems to be the only one who can see through their happy facade and actually call them out on their bullshit, as he does ending with this line, "Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness." He is a lighting rod that jolts the characters, specifically April, to take things into their own hands as the movie progresses. In the end, while RR is short on laughs, it's heavy on the common man's, and woman's, struggles. After first viewing I thought it was fantastic but too much of a downer. A second time thru I feel even more strongly about the performances but also realize that an underlying message of hope and encouragement is meant to be the true after taste.


Sam Mendes is a wonderful director. His roots in theatre not only make me want to work with him, someday, but make him an interesting storyteller. RR was shot in sequence, which is very rare for any film of any age, but makes so much sense for this movie in particular. Almost all the different locations are real and not existing on a set. These sort of real life qualities enhance the performances and allow for Mendes to weave a story that gets you to care about these two. They aren't a perfect couple, or perfect people, by any stretch of the imagination, but you still care for them. No one is a clear cut hero or bad guy but you care. They are people and so they are fallible. That human condition will force you to find something relatable to these two and it's those kind of stories that Mendes seems attracted to and ones which he is a master at telling.

If I had only ever seen DiCaprio and Winslet in this movie I'd still love them both as much as I do to this day. I've been lucky enough to see them, separately, in a number of movies and they always deliver the goods. It's obvious they bring the best out of one another as their chemistry is palpable. The movie requires actors who are willing to go places, intense places, and there may not be a better pairing than this. Of course any time Kathy Bates is in a movie it's sure to be great and she delivers a typically great performance. Her character's seemingly self-induced ignorance, at first, seems slightly over the top but it becomes clear just how pitch perfect it is for such a woman. Eventually we realize that even she is much like April in that she just wants to escape. Michael Shannon is a fan favorite in this movie because he lightens things up as comic relief but not in the way we're used to. His insights to the main characters are spot on and his quirky mannerisms and relationship with his parents is definitely laugh-out-loud worthy. Kathryn Hahn kind of stole the movie for me though, after seeing it again. It's clear her character idolizes Frank and April and when they seem intent on leaving for Paris, it takes a toll on Hahn's character. While she too might seem a bit melodramatic, you realize that, as the movie progresses, she is as much a victim of the Revolutionary Road affect as Frank and April. Same for her husband, who is essentially living a lie himself. I've only seen Hahn in two movies, the other being Step Brothers, but nothing better displays her range than these two.

Of course a movie with this much talent must mean a wonderful script had something to do with attracting them. Justin Haythe adapted the script for the screen and his writing must've been a result of recording the way people talk. Everything flows and sounds just right, especially the way people talked of that time, without sounding too cliche or contrived. There are a plethora of memorable lines in this juicy and soberingly honest script.

Lastly, the score from Thomas Newman is equally haunting as it is beautiful. Every time I hear the theme it manages to well up emotion within me that fits what you're watching like a glove yet it lingers with you hauntingly like a ghost. It's as though the music realizes the beautiful qualities in Frank and April but obviously can not deny the path their treading and, so, it echoes that sentiment wonderfully. As the screen goes black and we hear the theme once more it leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth.


Revolutionary Road is simply a fantastic movie. It hits on all cylinders. It delivers the goods to satisfy the nerdy actor within me and I am surprised it got snubbed like it did at the Oscars. Regardless of that, it has powerful performances, a beautiful score, a timeless feel, and ultimately an encouraging message. While I am well aware that perfection rarely exists in the world, this movie is one such exemption. Even if you aren't such a nerd for the actors-actor stuff, you will still find this movie entertaining and certainly worth watching again. It will linger with you well after you've seen it and if it doesn't make you have a conversation with whomever you may have watched it with, or at least within your own head, then, yet again, you need to check your pulse.

*phew* That was a long one (that's what she said!) so I apologize if it lost you somewhere in the beginning and I applaud you if you kept up. I told you I can go on! The more of these I do the less lengthy they will be. Or perhaps they will only stand to get longer. Yikes! Hopefully it wont deter you since, afterall, I am the one slaving over a hot keyboard! Discuss away!

1 comment:

Ransuroto said...

I read the whole thing! Does that mean I get to level up?

Nice review though, man. I feel like I watched the movie and I've never even seen it!