A film that sticks — why ‘Revolutionary Road’ is a masterwork

Posted by · 2:26 pm · January 15th, 2009

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary RoadGENTLE SPOILERS WITHIN — READ WITH CAUTION

Fear of change, fear of risk.

“If you don’t try anything, you can’t fail,” she tells him, striking at the heart of what has him so afraid of uprooting their family to Paris in the hopes of a better way of life.  Frank Wheeler is terrified of change, but his wife April longs for it.  She needs change to survive as a person, as a wife, believing, wrongly perhaps (perhaps not), that change will help her marriage and better define her place in it.

The characters in “Revolutionary Road” are in agonizing pain as they go about their daily lives, each trying to keep their marriage intact while also trying to live out their dreams.  Deep down, they must know their dreams have to be sacrificed to a degree.  Way down in their gut, they must know their dreams may never come true, and it is quietly destroying them.

Is “Revolutionary Road” a classic American film destined to be remembered for decades to come?  Or is it merely an over-praised, depressing work that will be forgotten once it hits DVD, a bizarre blip on the careers of the creators?  I tend to believe the former.  It is a sublime work of art and a demanding piece of cinema that takes audiences on a difficult journey through a rocky relationship that, for me, resembles the young years of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Bad marriages are stifling prisons, difficult to escape because of the enormous guilt attached to leaving, or the sense of defeat in giving up.  Sam Mendes gave us a powerful exploration of a marriage in crisis, wonderfully realized from Richard Yates’s fiction.  It is a portrait of characters struggling with their immediate existence, knowing that defining that existence right now is essential for their future.  They are faced, finally, with the horrible knowledge that they are both trapped, perhaps doomed to play house for the next 40 years.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet deliver astonishing performances in the film.  One does not exist without the other.  The actors are in synch as artists.  I am believer that DiCaprio is among the most naturally gifted actors of his generation. There is not a word of dialogue from him that seems false or forced; his work is effortless and consistently strong.  He was brilliant as a young Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” for Martin Scorsese, and even better in “The Departed” as an undercover cop struggling with the dangers of his job.

His work 16 years ago in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” made it clear this was a young actor to be reckoned with, and though “Titanic” brought him enormous exposure, did it help or hinder him as an artist?  I remember watching him speak James Cameron’s terrible dialogue and thinking, “He’s making this work.”  The same goes for Winslet, which to me is the sign of greatness, when an actor can take words, make them their own, and more importantly, make them sound as though it is positively natural.

The same thing happens with Frank Wheeler in “Revolutionary Road” as DiCaprio speaks language from another time and inhabits the character with every fiber of his being. There isn’t a moment we do not believe him here.

Kate Winslet is heartbreaking as a woman watching a barrier form between herself and all of her hopes and dreams. She loves her children, but she sees no reason why she cannot be a mother and wife and live out her dream.  When Franks refuses to move to Paris, her reality becomes a hell, with April reduced to a shaking, angry woman realizing everything as based on a broken promise.  Her dreams won’t be fulfilled…not now…not ever.  More than ever she is forced to realize she is ordinary, nothing special, not unique, not better than all of her friends, simple, ordinary, one of a million, not one in a million.  Winslet allows us to feel her pain, to witness her anger, to see her desperation.

The supporting cast is superb, from Michael Shannon’s eerie mental patient, who walks in and spouts the subtext of this turbulent marriage, to Kathy Bates, who gingerly walks on glass, the existence April sees herself heading towards.

Both Frank and April commit adultery, each wounding the other, until a decision is made, a sacrifice. Their final sequence together is wrenching as we see one of them agreeing, quietly, and without ever saying so, to accept the life that has been set out.  But it won’t end with that begrudging acceptance.  A stunningly selfish act is yet to be committed, one that will impact both lives forever.

What astounds me is how anyone can watch this film and not be moved, not be overwhelmed with the sudden swiftness of a life altered.  What is it about this film that is distancing audiences and many critics?  For me, it is a haunting work of art.  I have thought of little else since seeing it.

Some of the complaints I have heard and read focus on the fact that we never see the couple in their younger days, happy. Trust the script, trust the filmmaker to take us to this point in their lives.  Why do we have to see it?  They loved one another enough to marry, enough to have children and enough to decide to go to Paris on a whim.  Why do we have to have it spelled out for us?

Some marriages go horribly wrong.  I have seen friends walk that road and it is terrible.  Mendes challenges the audience to take a journey with him through a dysfunctional and bleak relationship with no easy outs.

Perhaps an Oscar win for Winslet will bring audiences to the film, allowing them to discover the work and celebrate its artistry.  Without some Oscar attention, I fear it is going to slip away.  Remember “Shoot the Moon,” the finest film of Alan Parker’s career?  The finest work by either Diane Keaton or Albert Finney?  Of course not.  A lack of awards attention allowed it to slip away.  It is possibly the finest film ever made about the impact of divorce on the family unit, yet so few people know it or have seen it.  How sad it will be if “Revolutionary Road” goes that way?

Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have created a towering work that audiences simply are not yet ready for.  Not in these troubling times. But give it a while.  Perhaps they’ll come around.

→ 33 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

33 responses so far

  • 1 1-15-2009 at 2:34 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Eh, it was a film that really disappointed me. I feel it just comes up short all around, and for me, anyway, it’s distancing because it’s at times so overly melodramatic and almost disingenuous; it feels like what is being shown is a movie, not real life. It comes off stilted, incomplete, and more than a little dissatisfying. Something about it just felt kind of rushed through.

    That being said, DiCaprio and Winslet are indeed phenomenal, and the beautiful recreation of the era is done very authentically. The emotions at the middle just didn’t stick, however.

  • 2 1-15-2009 at 2:42 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I don’t want to be overly presumptuous, English, and maybe I’m betraying my own penchant for dramatic relationships in my time, but judging from your comment, my guess is you’ve never found yourself in the situations portrayed so perfectly in this film.

  • 3 1-15-2009 at 2:48 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Well, you’d be right. Heh. Maybe it’s a film I’ll revisit years down the road, but for now all I know is it left me kind of empty.

  • 4 1-15-2009 at 2:53 pm

    Ash said...

    I’m going to have to go on the latter with this one, though not quite so harsh. I’m young though, so maybe it’s just a case of not understanding? However, my mind has always been that a movie only reaches greatness when it can be appreciated by people of all backgrounds and experiences.

    I just felt not connection at all to either Frank or April. I got what was going on, and why, there was just no reason to care.

  • 5 1-15-2009 at 2:54 pm

    Kate Morisey said...

    Of course there are works of art that are passed over, that don’t resonate with the times, that may be ahead of their time.

    This is not one of them.

    It was a beautifully shot, perfectly costumed, wonderfully art directed, inhuman movie. There was no mess to it. No room for humor. Life isn’t like that, human beings aren’t like that. I felt as if made a pretense of being “real”, “brutal”, but I found very little that was “real” about it. It was overwrought and not truthful. I have read the book, and I think the main problem with the film is that it underdeveloped the characters of Shep and Milly, especially Shep. In the book, I think the humanity that I am talking about is contained in the character of Shep, a man who is dissatisfied with his own life, dreams of April, but at the end, chooses to love his own family. I felt like this was a problem with the script or possibly the cut of the movie, to make this character less important. Possibly casting as well. The actor who played Shep, while very good, didn’t have a lot of warmth to him. I would have liked to have seen a young Seymour Hoffman or John Reilly.

  • 6 1-15-2009 at 2:55 pm

    John Foote said...

    Some honesty here…my first marriage was a horrible mistake, a tarap that I was fortunate to escape from in one piece and meet the love of my life — I get the pain in the film, I understand some of what is being explored, not all of it…but certainly some — perhaps that is why I like the film so much, because it is so accurate in its portrayal of pain, and longing for more.

  • 7 1-15-2009 at 2:58 pm

    John Foote said...

    And again, Kate, the moment we see Shep, the moment we see him with the Wheelers we know exactly what is going on and what he is thinking — this is a group of people very unhappy with their lives, and indeed there are moments in life when humor just does not enter into it — why does Shep’s weep after the Wheelers’ leave? Is it because she is losing them as friends, because they have the courage to do something she does not, or because she knows what her husband is thinking — the film challenged me on so many levels. IT’S REAL…it’s life.

  • 8 1-15-2009 at 3:31 pm

    Chris said...

    I think, for the very first time, I wholeheartedly agree with John. And, call me crazy, I think it will be nominated for Best Picture. Of course I don’t have any word from Academy members like so many others do who don’t predict it. But I was right about “Atonement” and “Munich”, maybe that’s a good omen. :)

  • 9 1-15-2009 at 3:50 pm

    Richard said...

    I was mixed on this one. There were moments I laughed at when I wasn’t supposed to and there were other moments that truely cut deep. Frank’s habit of not being able to give Alice space after an argument is something I’ve been gulity of and I wanted to sink into my seat whenever he did.

  • 10 1-15-2009 at 4:11 pm

    tony rock said...

    I think this is a film that is best appreciated if you’ve experienced some of what Frank and April go through, whether it be the little, subtle things during their arguments or even the bigger plot points. I’m only 21 years old and have never been married, yet I was engaged for a year during which I lived with the girl and some of the little stuff portrayed in Revolutionary Road are an exact mirror of what we went through. Because of that, I strongly related with the characters in the film (particularly Frank), and therefore share an opinion much akin to Kris.

    I do have a question for some, however. I’ve heard and read people saying that they feel the film is on April’s side. That most of the film is shown from her point of view and we as an audience are led to sympathize with her and not Frank. Did you people see the same movie I did? Because the film I saw heavily sympathized with Frank versus April, and was very much shown more form his POV. Maybe it’s just because I’m a man, but I felt Frank’s behavior was far more rational and understanding than April’s.

  • 11 1-15-2009 at 4:34 pm

    John Foote said...

    It shocks me that Frank does understand how agonized she is at the last breakfast, I cannot believe he does not know something is going to happen, or like many couples is he merely choosing to ignore what is going to happen and hope for the best — I do not believe the film takes sides, which is why I liked it so much —

  • 12 1-15-2009 at 5:06 pm

    Chase Kahn said...

    I think it’s great, with the only major flaw being Thomas Newman’s score — which is beautiful but overplayed/gaudy. I would have loved to have seen that piano piece book-end the film (I think it works great over Frank’s monotonous journey to work at the beginning, and it works at the end).

    We can’t underestimate how wonderfully shot the thing is, Deakins can do no wrong. Plus every scene is edited to perfection, drawing each out to the precise moment: just look at the final shot. DiCaprio also delivers in a big way, and Michael Shannon being ignored in the Supporting Actor field is really dissapointing.

  • 13 1-15-2009 at 5:20 pm

    BBats said...

    Im sorry but RR comes off as a movie meant to win oscars and that and the luke warm to mixed reviews really put me off to it. Nate from the the film experience had a great line about how he liked (not loved) RR and dark knight similarly but would rather see TDK nommed because it wasn’t awards bait-type.
    I think I wait for the dvd and go see Rachel getting married or let the right one in tonight instead.

  • 14 1-15-2009 at 5:33 pm

    Matty D. said...

    John, I think you hit upon how I feel about this film perfectly. It’s underappreciated and widely misunderstood and mistaken for melodramatic oscar fodder. It’s really unfortunate.

  • 15 1-15-2009 at 5:42 pm

    Dr. Strangelove said...

    It’s leaden and self-indulgent, but Shannon and Deakins are flawless.

  • 16 1-15-2009 at 6:47 pm

    Patrick said...

    What surprised me was DiCaprio. Well done. And Shannon deserves a supporting nod.

  • 17 1-15-2009 at 6:52 pm

    Leone said...

    I completely agree with John. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a masterpiece — and for those folks that didn’t get the humor of the piece, I wonder where they saw the film. The audience I saw it with was jam packed on opening weekend and laughed during many parts of the film, particularly Michael Shannon’s scenes as the crazy mathematician. And the actors who portrayed Millie and Shep, Kathy Bates character — all provided some comic relief. But why does a movie have to be “light”? Why can’t we celebrate and appreciate “tough” “serious” American dramas that are sophisticated? Can’t drama be entertainment? For me, this movie kept me engaged every moment the actors were on screen. I think the film succeeds because the acting is so real, so poignant, that your eyes are riveted to them. I felt the film touched on every human emotion and frailty and even the best parts of ourselves during the portion of the film when they were planning on going to Paris. It’s a great adaptation — the film is true to the book’s tone and, ultimately, I loved the book so I loved the movie I guess. I think it could surprise us on Oscar nomination day. I certainly hope so as it would be well deserved recognition for an outstanding film achievement.

  • 18 1-15-2009 at 8:03 pm

    Zan said...

    I’ll echo your sentiments on this one, John. I was prepared to be underwhelmed, but I was extremely pleased.

    “Revolutionary Road” is not just a film for those of us (not me) who have struggled through a marriage. If you’ve ever been in a serious, trying relationship, you can identify with this film. The ephemeral infatuation and whimsical “love” (as it’s often mistaken for) will eventually fade, leaving a hollowness and an insatiability. It was readily identifiable for me, and all the knocks on it have been very unfounded or poorly articulated.

  • 19 1-15-2009 at 8:38 pm

    Dan Mecca said...

    Hey John,

    Loved the post. Agree with most of what you said. Take a lot at this little diddy I put up on my website: http://thefilmstage.com/2009/01/14/in-defense-of-revolutionary-road/

    It makes a similar argument for the film. Love to get your feedback.

  • 20 1-15-2009 at 8:46 pm

    Ron said...

    About time some support for Revolutionary Road after so long since a goog article about it. I am going on three years in my relationship with my girlfriend and it was so flinching how I could relate to these people. Me and my girlfriend do just great but I relate to the fears and ambition of this couple. This was the only movie to actually choke me up, and I love the acting in this film all around. It’s about time for some respect for this movie which is going to end up the biggest snub period on oscar night.

  • 21 1-15-2009 at 9:03 pm

    BerkeleyGirl said...

    I LOVE “Shoot the Moon”!!! You are so right – unbelievable film, brutal, gorgeous (Oh, and I really wanted to live in that house…)

    Now, I’ve yet to see “Revolutionary Road” but the book is one of the finest I’ve ever read. Many of the negative reviews I’ve seen make me doubt the critics have read the book. It is harsh and eloquent. The fight scenes are so intimate that I wanted to literally turn away. It is not a story for those looking for redemption or happy endings. It is a must-read for anyone who appreciates exquisite fiction.

  • 22 1-15-2009 at 10:53 pm

    Ron said...

    Great article… I agree with everything said, especially the need for awards to be remembered. That is most above all the importance of oscars to me. When those tough challenging films or indies or anything get recognized bringing a new audience to the film that it most likly would not have had. Even more important in The Wrester’s case. This movie already feels like it is being ignored and it just isn’t right. The biggest problem is that Leo here gives the best acting of his career, not by alot over exceptional performances in Aviator and Departed (Blood Diamond really good, but not as good) and for it he may not even get nominated because the academy prefers veterans. Brad Pitt is a good actor but his performance in Benjamin Button is really good for the story but nothing special like Leo’s. I don’t believe he should win but to me I have him fourth for sure behind Rourke, penn, and langella. Not to mention MICHAEL SHANNON, who rightfully deserves the nod, If you ask me it is easily more of the studio failing than the movie.

  • 23 1-16-2009 at 2:11 am

    Randall said...

    I out and out love this film for alot of different reasons, but first and foremost I believe I love it so, for its daring narrative. Demanding is the word you said John, that I think most aptly suits this film, and I do believe that single word is what differentiates a masterwork from the rest of the bunch. Ozu is my favorite filmmaker of all time there’s a bit of Ozu in Revolutionary Road in that it is experiential. I felt as if I was in the company of others rather than perched voyeuristically looking through a window from outside the reality the characters were existing in on screen. That is how I believe Revolutionary Road transcends much in the same way Ozu does, from cinema to experiance. I felt as if I had actually shared these moments with these people. This film is haunting. I love being haunted by a film it means a connection was made deeper than words can articulate. I guess my only bias is that I have been through this exact situation and thus it struck a very personal chord with me.

  • 24 1-16-2009 at 8:16 am

    actionman said...

    Foote — this is a brilliant dissection of the film. I also think it’s a masterwork, albeit a very challenging masterwork that many people will be turned off by. Oh well…their loss.

  • 25 1-16-2009 at 1:08 pm

    Mike said...

    tony rock,

    I am in your corner I sympathized with Frank and thought it was more in his POV…

    at first when I watched it, I thought it was very good, not great, but I have also been thinking about it nonstop this week. I will need to re-watch it. It was def brilliantly shot by Deakins.

  • 26 1-16-2009 at 1:22 pm

    Godfather said...

    I was highly engaged from the beginning to the end — it seemed like I had just sat down when the film ended. The film has a pulse and heartbeat that is undeniable, but I do think age and experience allow for varying responses to the emotions and frustrations of the main characters. My, um, advanced age allows me to apprecate the complexities of the emotions within the relationship; however, I also believe it’s a work of art from all contributors.

  • 27 1-16-2009 at 1:29 pm

    tonton said...

    that “i hate you” scene was just superb.

  • 28 1-16-2009 at 2:08 pm

    Lance said...

    For me, it needed a more creative ending. The last couple of scenes didn’t seem to work – maybe I missed something. Great beginning and awesome performances!

  • 29 1-17-2009 at 7:51 pm

    Judit said...

    It’s really sad that DiCaprio is getting unrecognized for his performance here, particularly with Pitt being recognized for his performance.

  • 30 1-19-2009 at 3:34 pm

    tyler said...

    Revolutionary Road is anything but a masterpiece. Mendes fumbles with what works brilliantly in the novel. The use of ironic and dark humor coupled with the searing weight of the emotional fight scenes turn the book from a suburban tale to an incredible novel. But what Mendes and the writer did was copy and paste the most dramatic scenes from the book, almost verbatim. This kills the movie. All the emotional scenes in the film lack that kick they should have. No one can deny the acting in this movie, which is exceptional. Kate Winslet has outdone herself again and Leo is showing what he can really do when he lets himself go. I havn’t written the full review for my site but hopefully it’s up soon if anyone wants to check it out.

    I may not agree but great post John.

  • 31 1-19-2009 at 3:35 pm

    tyler said...

    oh sorry its http://www.wildclementines.com

  • 32 1-20-2009 at 2:33 am

    Ron said...

    i am betting a good showing at the academy. Winslet, Dicaprio, Shannon for noms. The movie was a late release with a really good theater average. The academy and world went nuts for the two stars years ago and the academy gave a fair share of love to mendes in 99. I have a feeling this movie was just sitting on the outside looking in for the guilds and now over the whole academy voting base I think it will land the acting nods and some tech nods. So I am calling the comeback now.

  • 33 7-02-2009 at 10:32 am

    Suzanne said...

    I just watched RR. I am young and married but I still related to it. Overall pretty depressing but it disillusioned me of a few things, which is good. I felt bad for Winslet’s character. That’s a harsh reality when it’s too little too late…and not because you’re the one unwilling to make a change.

    As far as the fighting, from what personal stories I have heard, it was VERY realistic. I am going to watch it my mom and see what she thinks.

    I didn’t like the last scene at all though. Figure out a better way to end it other than a man turning down his hearing aid so he doesn’t have to listen to his wife. Yeah she wasn’t being nice but ending the moving like that sends the wrong message. That’s how the main characters ended up like that did.