Sam Mendes’s new film, Revolutionary Road, reprises themes from his celebrated American Beauty and reunites the stars of Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. (Winslet has already won both a Golden Globe and a SAG award for her performance in Road.) Based on a Richard Yates novel, the film depicts the suburban malaise experienced by a young couple (Frank and April Wheeler), a stay-at-home mom of two (Winslet as April) and a father (DiCaprio as Frank) who commutes into the city to work in the stifling corporate world at the same company for which his father labored anonymously throughout his adult life.
With its focus on suburban alienation, Road calls to mind American Beauty, even as it echoes another of Winslet’s recent films, Little Children. A complex and contradictory film, American Beauty was at once ambitious and pretentious, cartoonish and genuinely funny. The film’s tag line, “look closer,” invited viewers to glimpse a reconciling stillness beneath the surface of things. Road offers no grand vision; it gives us ordinary characters and aims to invest them with greater nuance and depth. But the film does not go far enough in this direction. Except for a few passing references to Frank’s father, the past of these characters is not filled in. How did they come to be the sort of individuals they now are? An unspoken assumption of the film is that the world of 1950s American suburbia is soul-numbing. But the social context, or at least how it exercises its totalitarian pull, is not given sufficient attention.
In an interview, Mendes explains the key insight of the film: “It deals with this idea, that I think a lot of people–friends of mine, contemporaries and even me myself at certain points–have felt, which is that you somehow find yourself living a life you hadn’t quite expected and certainly one that you didn’t really want to live. You find yourself compromising the ideals and the dreams you had when you were younger.”
The dramatic problem is twofold. On one hand, the youthful dreams of this couple are so insubstantial that the dilemma (scorched souls in Connecticut vs. self-realized individuals in Paris) is not credible. Frank moans at one point, “I want to feel, really feel.” Meanwhile April moves from fantasizing about another life to making plans for the family to move to Paris. She promises Frank that if they move to Paris, she will work and he will be “free to figure out what he wants.” Frank, already having reservations about the move, uses April’s unexpected pregnancy as an excuse to call off the relocation. From this point, April falls prey to resentment, anger, and near madness.
On the other hand, it is never clear what the source of the malaise is. The film is at its best in the climactic and emotionally violent confrontation between Frank and April, where the framing of the characters, the soundtrack, and the physical chemistry (one is tempted to call it an anti-chemistry) between husband and wife offer a chilling picture not just of marital discord but of lives spinning out of all rational control. It passes credibility to suppose that the sources of the psychic vertigo are a tiresome job, a nice house in Connecticut, and tiresome dinners with superficial friends.
Self-absorption to the point of the utter denial that anyone else can make any claim on one’s life must have a much deeper source than suburban anomie. But Mendes has nothing to say about what this might be. Indeed, Mendes fails to grasp the irony of Yates’s book, in which the author never takes the self-interpretation of the characters at face value.
Because the characters’ dreams never transcend the realm of adolescent fantasy and because they never express genuine affection for each other, much less for their children, the film cannot reasonably be described as Mendes describes it: a “great romantic tragedy.”
If the film is a tragedy for anyone, it is for the children of this couple–a point explicitly made by the bluntest character in the film, the mentally imbalanced son of the realtor who sold the Wheelers their Connecticut dream home. The filmmakers’ choice to render the children as nothing more than occasional props in the film nicely reflects the self-absorbed mentality of the main characters.
Pregnancy is the great evil in the film, the enemy to be defeated, not because the parents do not have the resources to raise the children or because pregnancy arises from incest or rape, but simply because the presence of children punctures the world of perpetual adolescent fantasy to which the main characters are devoted. The family moved to suburbia because of the first pregnancy and then, as April explains, they had a second child to prove the first was “not a mistake.” Were the characters philosophically inclined, they might agree with Justice Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992). It is not surprising, then, that the culminating act in the film should be a self-inflicted abortion.
With Revolutionary Road as a fitting follow-up–and given the earlier time period, a kind of historical antecedent–to American Beauty, Mendes stakes his claim to being the contemporary master of dark films of suburban angst. There are, however, evils more inexplicable than this, and darknesses more terrifying than those bounded by white picket fences. Rooted in a narcissism that sees others as threats even as it destroys the self, the monstrous turning of a mother against the life that is growing within her bespeaks a malevolence for which suburban disaffection is hardly an adequate explanation. In this film, as was the case with last year’s 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, the images on the screen, rather than the filmmakers’ musings about their intentions, tell the real story, a story that defies conventional Hollywood categories.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University, and author ofArts of Darkness.