Film review – Revolutionary Road (2008)

Revolutionary Road
Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet)

The key line of dialogue in Revolutionary Road, the new film by director Sam Mendes, is spoken by John Givings, a mentally ill mathematician who features in two keys scenes from the film. When John first meets Frank and April Wheeler and identifies their desire to escape from suburbanite conformity he remarks, “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness but it takes real guts to notice the hopelessness”. This line comes during the first part of this film about 1950s middle class American life. The Wheelers are a young couple who have decided to ditch their dull and bland lives to move to Paris in order to escape from their self imposed comfort zone. The idea is that April Wheeler will work instead of playing the part of reluctant homemaker and Frank Wheeler will attempt to discover what it is he really wants to do in life, rather than waste away in a meaningless office job. However, as their plan to escape to a new life is set in motion fears, anxieties and the trappings of their secure routine lifestyle begin to threaten that plan.

Frank and April WheelerRevolutionary Road is a highly accomplished film that will thematically resonate with many audiences who have like the Wheelers recognised both the emptiness and hopelessness of suburban inertia. This is familiar ground for Sam Mendes as the ideas being explored in this film, plus its use of music and bold, yet never self conscious, cinematography evoke Mendes’s brilliant film début, American Beauty. The acting is also superb with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet giving incredibly strong performances as Frank and April Wheeler. They present themselves on screen as a completely believable and recognisable couple. They are a likeable pair but also flawed and both capable of behaving destructively towards the other. The strain on their marriage as a result of external pressures is genuinely upsetting to witness. The scenes depicting their arguments are explosive and reminiscent of the brutal exchange of words throughout Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? While the rest of the cast is also strong, Michael Shannon (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) is particularly brilliant as the troubled John.

The main problem with Revolutionary Road is that it simply feels a little too late. It is an adaptation of a highly influential and revered 1961 novel by Richard Yates, who had wanted to write a film adaptation himself but rights issues meant that he died without ever being able to do so.  While you can imagine the power of such a novel when it was first published in 1961, its attack of middle-class conformity is now well-trodden ground. There are moments, ideas and characters in Revolutionary Road that evoke films as recent as The Ice Storm, Far from Heaven, The Hours and, of course, American Beauty. Revolutionary Road has neither the bite that these other superior films have, nor does it linger in the mind to the extent that it could.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Check out the incredible series Mad Men for a real take on America in the late 50’s.
    Titanic II? No thanks.

  2. Revolutionary Road is not remotely like Titanic in any shape or form (with of course the exception of having the same two leads who are over 10 years older than they were when they appeared together in Titanic).

    Mad Men is on my shows-to-watch list but I’ve got so many others to catch up on first.

  3. Mad Men should be first on your list – amazing. Also, I don’t wish to be argumentative, but it’s early 60s, not that it makes any difference! At least, the second series is 1962

  4. I agree pretty much with everything you said – it was beautifully made, but for some reason it didn’t make the right impact on me. It wasn’t really anything special, though I can see it being nominated for multiple oscars, and possibly winning some – the Academy laps up these kinds of depressing films.

    But just one thing you should note… his name’s Frank, not John. :)

  5. Good heavens! I got the names of the two characters completely mixed up. Well spotted moogirl22 and thank you very much for pointing that out. I’ve fixed the errors but nevertheless feel like a total goose!

    Thanks for your feedback and I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that given the subject matter, it should have had more impact (especially as many aspects of the film resonated with events from my own life).

    I reckon you are right about it getting lots of Oscar nominations but I’m not so sure that it will win anything given the quality of the films that it will most likely be up against. I’m guessing things like The Wrestler, The Reader and Rachel Getting Married are going to be the strong contenders this year. I haven’t seen Milk yet but from what I hear that will be up there too. Doubt may also get a few nods but it doesn’t deserve to.

    Then again, I am notorious for always being way off the mark when it comes to trying to guess the outcome of the Oscars!

  6. Impressive review thomas! or at least, I totally agree with you! And I like that you picked out Michael Shannons stand out performance as Frank. This website is great, keep up the good work :-)

  7. Why thank you Miss Maya and your presence here is most welcome.

    Michael Shannon was great and I’ve liked him ever since I saw him in William Friedkin’s underrated and little seen film Bug. I was really pleased to see Shannon get a supporting actor Academy Award nomination and I’d love to see him win. However, I doubt that will happen considering who he is up against and the circumstances involved in that.

  8. Well, i just saw the movie yesterday…thought of having some entertainment, but it really was a shocker…seriously, impacted me totally negatively…they could have shown a better ending to let their title “break free without breaking apart” to have a constructive impact. But i would still say, it is worth watching because both have acted tremendously well…:)

    The other two movies that i really enjoyed were Twilight and Slumdog Millionaire…must watch…:)

  9. Hi Saba and thanks for your comments. To be fair to Revolutionary Road, I think it is supposed to leave you feeling shocked and horrible. Not exactly a fun night out though I’ll agree.

    I haven’t reviewed Slumdog Millionaire or Twilight here but I have reviewed both on the radio. I also loved Slumdog Millionaire but am a little surprised at the hype it has generated. I’m afraid I can’t say I was a big fan of Twilight but I don’t think that I am the target audience. Also, I grew up watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Lost Boys so I expect vampires to explode when the sun hits them – not glisten!

    But as a friend of mine told me, I need to move on…

  10. I saw this one very recently and like you, I was fairly underwhelmed by it. It just didn’t pack the punch that it should and could have, in my opinion. Although probably not helped by the people behind me who took every thoughtful pause to explain to each other what was going on…I actually had to move.

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