For some of us, life truly begins when we get married, have kids, and "settle down." By taking vows and laying down roots, we feel a sense of purpose and permanence. We begin to build things – homes, careers, families, portfolios, reputations. But for the tortured characters in 'Revolutionary Road,' choosing a quiet domestic existence marks not the beginning, but the end of promise and potential. Their ordered lives quickly become inert, stifling, and unfulfilling, and the sense of loss – of the world moving forward while they stand still – becomes overwhelming. Though the streets of suburbia may look idyllic, with their shingled houses, manicured lawns, and playful children frolicking in the front yard, for Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), they're bleak paths that lead nowhere, dead ends of despair. For them, the American dream isn't a dream at all; it's a nightmare.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Richard Yates, 'Revolutionary Road' is a devastating portrait of a marriage in crisis, of souls searching for passion and coming to terms with limitations. It's depressing as hell, also intense and disturbing, but beneath its brutal, emotional veneer lies a beautifully constructed, brilliantly acted, and exquisitely executed film that challenges us to look inward and evaluate our own choices. Though largely (and unjustly) ignored by the Academy last year – or maybe just out-campaigned by 'The Reader' – 'Revolutionary Road' possesses all the elements of an Oscar-worthy picture, and its multiple layers, subtleties, and textures make its impact difficult to fully absorb in one viewing.
When they first meet at a bohemian party in New York City, Frank and April believe they are special people, superior to others in their beliefs and attitudes, and destined for great things. But marriage, two children, and a move to the suburbs puts the kibosh on their lofty dreams, and they soon see themselves as just another undistinguished family that has "resigned from life." Frank, who toils at a deathly dull office job, seeks to recapture his former swagger by seducing a pert secretary (Zoe Kazan), while April, who sees her house as a prison and can barely stomach the weekly bourgeois get-togethers with neighbors Shep and Milly Campbell (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), concocts a wild scheme to break free from suburban purgatory and flee with her husband and children to Paris, where she will work while Frank studies and "finds himself." "This is our chance," she tells Frank. "This is our one chance." Buoyed by April's enthusiasm and the romantic notion of exotic escape, Frank okays the plan, but an unexpected pregnancy and possible promotion complicate matters and threaten to send their already unsteady lives spiraling out of control.
It doesn't matter that 'Revolutionary Road' is set in the 1950s when sexual roles were more concretely defined and options for both men and women seemed more limited. Yates taps into a restless disillusionment that exists in varying degrees in all of us, and the unflinching honesty that pervades his poetic prose strikes a universal chord. Though we may not act as rashly as Frank and April, and may condemn their plans as immature and unrealistic, we can see elements of ourselves in them, and relate to their heartache, their feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, even their desperation. Their friends may admire them and covet their golden aura, but the Wheelers aren't role models by any means; in fact, many viewers may find them annoying and whiny, and wish they would grow up and buck up. But even if they don't earn our sympathy, we can certainly empathize with what they're going through and dealing with. In the promised land of comfort and prosperity known as 1950s suburbia, dreams were supposed to come true. But for the Wheelers, it's all a bunch of hooey, a big joke. And the joke's on them.
Yet labeling 'Revolutionary Road' as a damnation of suburbia is too simplistic. It's also about the death of America's revolutionary spirit (before its rebirth in the 1960s), and the potentially ruinous effect of inflated expectations, dashed hopes, and unattainable aspirations. It's not an easy novel to film or an easy film to like – so much nuance and introspection, and not a lot of real plot – but director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe honor it with a faithful adaptation that will please even those, like me, who revere the book. In addition to the flawless direction, Thomas Newman's simple yet affecting music score sets a perfect tone of hopelessness, while Roger Deakins' masterful cinematography reflects the characters' changing moods and perspectives.
The supporting performances are all superb, especially Kathy Bates as a family friend and the Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon as her mentally disturbed son (who ironically can see through the Wheelers and confront them with painful truths), but no one can eclipse Leo and Kate. Both have come a long way since they last worked together in 'Titanic' – they're more mature and polished, and their chemistry has strengthened – and it's more than a treat to see them reunited here.
Winslet cements her already stellar reputation with another spot-on portrayal. We may not understand or approve of April's actions, but Winslet's choices are beyond reproach, and she never compromises to make the character more likable. Without a doubt, she deserved the Best Actress Oscar this year, but she deserved it for 'Revolutionary Road,' not 'The Reader,' and it's a shame this amazing performance went unacknowledged. (Thankfully, however, it did win Winslet a Golden Globe.) And how could the Academy fail to nominate DiCaprio? Never has the actor unleashed such a torrent of emotion, yet every outburst of anger or expression of pain seems genuine. Frank is also not someone we admire, but we feel deeply for him, thanks to DiCaprio's sensitivity and grace.
Raw and heartbreaking, yet delicate and understated, 'Revolutionary Road' may not be a date flick, but it's a movie couples should see together and discuss. Mendes' film is an emotionally bruising experience, but those who appreciate searing stories, expert filmmaking, and terrific acting won't mind the battering one bit.
The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer for 'Revolutionary Road' is very attractive indeed, with a fine grain structure, lovely warmth, and marvelous period feel that evokes the Douglas Sirk/Ross Hunter melodramas of the '50s and '60s. A slight softness enhances the bygone look, yet many shots also possess a striking starkness that powerfully emphasizes the emptiness and turmoil pervading the film. The excellent clarity also showcases Winslet's often haggard appearance and DiCaprio's wild emotion, and good depth broadens the scope of many settings.
The lush color palette is carefully controlled, so hues look vivid but never oversaturated; the bucolic greens of suburban Connecticut are bold yet true, and accents such as lipstick lend the picture added punch. Fabric details in tweed, silk, and cotton show up well, and fleshtones remain stable and accurate. Blacks are rich and inky, shadow delineation is fine, and low-lit scenes only display the faintest smattering of noise.
An intimate story requires a textured transfer that subtly draws us into the characters' world, and this film-like effort from Paramount does just that.
Aside from all the shouting, 'Revolutionary Road' is a fairly quiet film, so there's not much opportunity for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track to flex its muscle. Nevertheless, this is a strong, subtle presentation that sustains and enhances the story's mood. Dialogue, of course, dominates the well-balanced mix, and every word comes through cleanly. Dynamic range is excellent, too; the loudest arguments never sound shrill, and tranquil moments resonate. Though surround activity is pretty much limited to an isolated thundershower, very faint ambience occasionally can be detected. The front channels, however, provide an expansive enough sound field to give us a pseudo-immersive feel, thanks to solid directionality and seamless pans. Period tunes are deftly integrated into the track's fabric, and Thomas Newman's hauntingly simple score enjoys marvelous tonal depth and fine presence. Palpable bass comes at a premium, but well-modulated low-end frequencies add cozy warmth to many scenes. All in all, a high quality, unobtrusive track.
Quality trumps quantity in the extras department, with disc extras that really augment the 'Revolutionary Road' experience. All content is presented in high-def, so that's a nice plus.
A sobering look at marriage and the suburban lifestyle, 'Revolutionary Road' packs a wallop, but its thought-provoking story, lyrical presentation, and marvelous performances make it one of 2008's finest films. Richard Yates' classic novel finally gets its cinematic due, and the excellent video and audio transfers, as well as a fine selection of supplements, enhance this timeless tale. Its appeal may be limited, but wandering down 'Revolutionary Road' is a rewarding experience that comes highly recommended.
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