Thoughts on Revolutionary Road
There is no dearth of films on the darkness of suburban life in America. In fact we get at least one every year. As far as content goes, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road is nothing new.
A young couple move to the suburbs after their first pregnancy, looking for a stable background for the life that is to come and for themselves. Few years and two children down the line, it hits them that they aren’t happy with their lives, and the stableness they once desired. The wife suggests moving to Paris – a long unfulfilled dream of her husband’s, where he can take some time off while she provides for the family. After some initial hesitation, the husband is on board. The couple, excited for the first time in years, make plans, announcements and dreams. As luck would have it, the husband’s meaningless job suddenly becomes more lucrative, forcing him to rethink, he does, and thus begins the crashing of dreams and a family.
The hopeless emptiness that surrounds the lives of Frank (Leonardo Dicaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) has been staple fodder in Hollywood for years. Think back to American Beauty, Donnie Darko or even the other Kate Winslet starrer Little Children. The emptiness eats people on the one hand, and gradually, the monstrous City—which stands in stark comparison to the suburbs—looks more colourful and more alive.
It is therefore not the story that makes Revolutionary Road special, but the characters who may live the lives of stock suburban figures in cinema, but embody greater detail in the way they’ve been built. As he narrates his one lasting memory of his father’s company, Frank says that the one thing he wanted was to not become like him, and here he is, working for the same company. The sense of superiority that was there in him when he sub-consciously distanced himself from his father’s way of life, stayed with him and we see glimpses of it in his very demeanor. He feels superior to his co-workers, to his neighbours and of course to his wife.
April on the other hand is no longer sure that they are in fact superior to the lot that lives falsely content lives in the suburbs. She is doing the dishes, looking after her children and exchanging gardening tips like any other woman. Her failed attempt at acting has only proven that she can no longer boast of being above the rest. Instead, it gives the riff-raff of her neighbourhood a chance to judge her. She reminds Frank of the man he used to be, who she thought was ‘the most exciting man (she had) ever met’, and wants to see that energy in him again. The confidence that was explicit in her body language in the snapshots of her pre-marital life has waned and she wants the edge back. In the guise of giving her husband the time to be the intellectual he has aspired to be, she is looking to gain control.
Frank laughs at the lowly, backward notion of his friend when he expresses shock and contempt at the thought of April supporting him while he sits back, but it is ultimately the idea of control that becomes the deciding factor. Questioning Frank’s manhood is the recurring motif throughout the film – which leads him to try and prove it in the most traditional way – violence. The thought of earning more, going beyond the man his father was, one who can stand proud in front of his children because he has given them the perfect life, is a temptation he can’t avoid.
The other recurring figure of suburbia is a mentally disturbed character. Michael Shannon plays John Givings, the institutionalised son of their neighbour and land-lady. As is expected, he is the only person who ‘truly understands’ what they mean when they say they want to escape the hollow emptiness. They are happy to see he approves, as if it is a true indicator of his genius and the greatness of their plan. However, when he speaks the truth once again and questions Frank’s manhood, he is a crazed lunatic who should be shut up in an asylum where him and his views belong. In the suburbs, the mad are the sane.
The film does give in to hysteria every now and again becoming, at points, a little too shrill, but when it is contrasted with lasting silence—and Mendes does that at strategic points and with the control of a master—the silence becomes loaded with anticipation, frustration and hope, all at the same time.
Mendes’ unique touch in this film is his use of light. Strikingly different from the darkness that occupies the lives of those in the suburbs, is the bright, comforting light that is always visible, especially in the Wheeler house. The warm feeling that light gives makes the shock of their failing lives more potent. To add to it is a minimalist, yet haunting soundtrack that is only audible in few parts of the film. There is a despair at the core of this film, and the Mendes has used every possible tool to delve his audience into it completely.
I never imagined that Sam Mendes would be able to outdo what he created with American Beauty. With Revolutionary Road, however, he managed.