Movie Review: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road (2008)–****

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I watched Sam Mendes’ American Beauty the day before I saw Revolutionary Road. When I popped in the DVD I thought it was a bad idea, watching a movie as near perfect as American Beauty before catching the new Mendes picture. Both films deal with the soul-crushing nature of homogeneous suburban life. Both films have an enviable cast of some of the best movie actors working under the direction of an actors’ director. How could you not have your view of Revolutionary Road obstructed by the genius of American Beauty?

How? Because Revolutionary Road is just that good. Brilliant in fact. Revolutionary Road unlike American Beauty points a lens on life in the 1950s, a time when convention could not be strayed from. There’s a reason the lives in Revolutionary Road seem hopeless. In order for the film to be true, to be a work of cinematic art, it couldn’t have existed any other way.

Hopeless isn’t my word, though. That’s one of the words Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) uses to describe the life he’s living. Hopeless and empty. His wife, April (Kate Winslet), feels the same way. In there desperation to live while their alive, April hatches a plan to sell the couple’s house and move their family of four to Paris. Frank would be able to quit his pointless job and discover things about the world that he’s always wanted to discover. In Europe. Where people are alive. Not like in the suburbs.

But life happens. April gets pregnant with a third child. Frank is offered a big promotion. The more they struggle to live a dream, the faster they sink into the quicksand of their own lives.

Making matters worse is the occasional visit by John (Michael Shannon), son of a pair of friendly neighbors and certified crazy man. John, who visits the couple with his parents when he’s allowed out of the psychiatric hospital, is the first person who understands their perspective. As the dream of Paris begins to die, John, played by Shannon with an unsettling hostility, pushes against Frank’s apparent backpedaling and feeds April’s continued desire to escape.

The question the couple must answer when confronted with John’s lunatic insights is are they insane or does the lifestyle make them crazy? Watching Winslet’s character slowly disintegrate as the perceived realities of her lifestyle erode whatever dreams or desires she might have had is profoundly affecting. Her vicious and confrontational arguments with DiCaprio’s Frank provide an answer to that final question in the Langston Hughes’ poem above. Dreams deferred do explode.

The crackling ferocity of Winslet and DiCaprio is epic, worthy of being compared to the legendary performances of Leigh and Brando in Streetcar Named Desire. As I watched the pair on screen in Revolutionary Road, I was thankful for Titanic for the first time in my life. Another pair of actors who were less comfortable with each other could have delivered these performances. The nakedness of their acting required a certain amount of trust in one another. Under the direction of Winslet’s husband, Mendes, we get a sense that Winslet, DiCaprio, and everyone else involved understood the project, resulting in something quite rare in a motion picture: harmonic perfection.

Sure, Revolutionary Road looks like business as usual for any late-year release seeking Oscar glory. That’s the trouble with Oscar. We sometimes can’t see past the glitz and glamor to the truly significant moments in cinema. Revolutionary Road is a masterpiece of the highest caliber, the best film of 2008, a picture that will live long after an envelope is opened and a statue presented. I live for movies like this.

Revolutionary Road, starring Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon, and Kathy Bates, directed by Sam Mendes, is in theaters now.

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