Revolutionary Road is one of the most brutally honest motion pictures to come around in a long time. The film, based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, isn’t simply an incendiary indictment on suburbia – it’s a film that aims to make you feel downright uncomfortable.
I have no doubt that most audiences will be turned off by the film, mainly because director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) brings the subject matter home. The film addresses doubts not necessarily about the institution of marriage, but mostly about a society that demands beautiful lies in the place of cold truths.
Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both robbed of Oscar nominations) are a young married couple with two children in 1955 Connecticut, living in a two-story house on Revolutionary Road. Bored and disconnected from suburban lifestyle, Frank and April consider moving to Paris, escaping the traps of suburbia, but their plan fails as their marriage begins to disintegrate.
In two extraordinary scenes, Frank and April are visited by John Givings (Michael Shannon), the institutionalized son of their neighbors Helen (Kathy Bates) and Howard Givings (Richard Easton). Ironically, John Givings is the sanest character in the movie – a victim of electroshock therapy, he bluntly tells Frank and April harsh bits of suburban wisdom that cut deep.
Revolutionary Road shares a similar fascination with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols), in that both films are concerned with illusion versus reality, and, more specifically, the hiding of the truth. The truth, as George and Martha (and now, Frank and April) discover, is something that people will spend years avoiding, walling themselves inside hopeless jobs, meaningless relationships and various institutions of society in an attempt to escape facing it.
Perhaps most unsettling is the way Mendes presents two idealistic young lovers who feel an extraordinary amount of “special-ness” about them. They joke about the ridiculousness of a society that demands that one must settle down and resign from life, even as they buy into that same society.
Frank often talks about his father, who he watched work tirelessly for years for the same company, and vows to never follow in those same footsteps. April, meanwhile, desires to go to France for the sake of Frank’s dreams, but what about her? Where does her “special-ness” come into play? The fact of the matter is, Frank and April don’t really love each other, and not even Paris can save their marriage.
But even so, Frank and April know, feel, that they are destined for greater things than living on Revolutionary Road for the rest of their lives. So what is their life there? A brief pit stop before they leave for France and become the extraordinary human beings they were destined to be?
And the ending to Revolutionary Road? Without giving away any major plot details, the final scene of the film is disturbing in that it truly reveals the sickness of a society that refuses to acknowledge the problem.
Despite the 1950s setting, there is nothing dated about the themes of Revolutionary Road. Modern societies follow the same unhealthy pattern – in the wake of a disturbing and tragic event in the community (whether that be a suicide, divorce, or the institutionalization of a young man), society chooses to ignore the self-inadequacy, creative stifling, and genuine depression that led to the tragedy. By ignoring the problem, the tragedy can be tossed and filed away as an oddity, a rare hiccup in an otherwise perfect world – after all, there can’t be anything wrong in suburbia, can there?
Revolutionary Road is a story about who we might have been, if conventions and conformity hadn’t held us in a straightjacket. More specifically, it’s about two young people who haven’t given up hope that their greatness is still achievable. We all feel that same sense of self-importance – that somehow, our existence, our purpose, is far greater than that of the people surrounding us. The tragedy of Revolutionary Road is that by the time both Frank and April discover that they aren’t meant to be extraordinary, that Paris is a fluke – they aren’t content enough with each other to keep feigning happiness on Revolutionary Road.
Suburbanites could certainly take a cue from Revolutionary Road. Why do husbands and wives kill each other, and, more often, themselves? Why are truth-tellers deemed insane and unfit for society? Why do people, believing they are destined for extraordinary things, watch themselves disappear into nothing as they shut down and take part in a lifestyle built on false happiness?
Those are truths we don’t want to face.
In the words of John Givings, “Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”