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Revolutionary Road Kicks the American Dream to the Curb

  • Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2008 12 Dec
  • COMMENTS
<i>Revolutionary Road</i> Kicks the American Dream to the Curb

DVD Release Date:  June 2, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 26, 2008 (limited); January 16, 2008 (wide)
Rating:  R (for language and some sexual content/nudity)
Genre:  Drama, Adaptation
Run Time:  119 min.
Director:  Sam Mendes
Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn

Having a stable job, healthy family, and nice home in a pleasant neighborhood may be the worst kind of life.  A pregnancy and job promotion aren’t blessings; they’re curses.  And if you’re the wife who must endure the inhumane torture of having all of your basic needs met and more—with a husband (though imperfect) who’s genuinely working and sacrificing all that he can to build a good life—well you’re obviously serving a life sentence. 

If that’s your life but you were oblivious to how bad off you really were, well now you can thank Revolutionary Road for your current enlightenment.  Ah, we all can see clearly now!  Suburbia is the place where passions go to die.  Homes are elaborate tombstones in the Cemetery of Dreams.  But wait, maybe there’s still hope.  Quit your job!  Forego that promotion!  Blow your savings!  Run off to Paris!  Heck, have an abortion if you must!  But please, for the love of Humanism, get out of there at all costs!  Before it’s too late!

This is the vision of post-WWII America in Revolutionary Road, an American Beauty: 1950s Edition, if you will.  Linking those two films is an apt thematic comparison, and especially fitting since both share the same director, Sam Mendes.  He won an Oscar for staging that overrated load of hogwash, and now like a pig returning to the trough he’s back for more.  Oscar voters may very well be willing to slop that up again (some love nothing more than a good ole preachy indictment of Middle America!), but don’t be fooled if they do.

Sure, it’s set a couple of generations back (as it’s based on Richard Yates’ acclaimed 1961 debut novel, though clearly there’s a desired contemporary relevancy here), but if you want to see universal mid-life struggles and regrets explored, set in the same time period examining the exact same themes—but done brilliantly—you can find it on TV.  It’s called Mad Men.  But this?  It depicts Normalcy and simplifies it to the point of judgmental contempt in a heavy-handed sermon about the unmerciful hell that is Suburbia.

Revolutionary Road juxtaposes the idyllic image of the American Dream with the deterioration of a marriage that has become an absolute nightmare—via an ironic casting reunion of those Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the doomed couple Frank and April Wheeler.  All of the elements of “How to Make an Important Film” are there:  rocky marriage, problems at work, temptations of infidelity, dreams unfulfilled, all suppressed behind the veneer of the aforementioned American Dream—set to a melancholy music score, of course.  No cliché is left unturned.

It becomes clear that April is the film’s liberated ideal, which isn’t a good thing.  Yearning to escape their emotionally dead lives, she convinces Frank that they (along with their two kids) can make a way of abandoning their present security to pursue his childhood dream of living in Paris, where he could “find himself” while she works a government job (she stresses they pay really well there on more than one occasion).  He actually buys her reasoning, but it becomes a hard sell to the neighbors who become flummoxed (which really means “jealous”; they’re much too repressed to dare live their lives like the Wheelers) upon hearing of their decision to throw caution to the wind.

The only person to embrace the clear wisdom of their choice is—I kid you not—the one character who’s certifiably insane.  That he’s also the film’s Moral Conscience would be laughable if it weren’t so insulting.  While the neighbors hold disdain for the Wheeler’s plans, this man—John—is “crazy” enough to see clearly the wisdom of their drastic move and the “lunacy” of a typical family life.  He’s not crazy; everyone else is!  Responsibility is just a code word for “hiding,” but it takes true backbone to do whatever it is you feel like doing.  John defines Suburban life as hopeless emptiness, saying that while most realize it’s empty it takes real courage to accept that it’s hopeless.  That is the film’s philosophy in a nutshell, laid bare and unequivocal as we’re beat over the head with it again and again.  You can cut the narcissism with a knife.

Of course two big wrenches get thrown into the Wheeler’s plans—namely a big promotion for Frank and an unexpected pregnancy for April.  Both are viewed as evil temptations rather than the blessed options they truly are, and these curveballs send the final act into a melodramatic spiral that pits April (who knows they must escape at all costs!) against Frank (whose anger over April’s demand to still leave is played as cold Patriarchal Oppression).  When John learns Frank has backtracked, he asks “You know who I feel sorry for the most?” and then points to April’s pregnant womb, “That child!”  Oh yes, what a horrible world their unborn kid will be forced to enter!  Clearly April’s inclination to abort is the only compassionate option.

The dramatic coup de grâce occurs the morning after Frank puts his foot down about staying.  April goes from impassioned defender of bucking responsibility to, overnight, a veritable Stepford wife.  Not only does this drastic shift telegraph the course of the film (complete with an eye-rolling symbol of a blood-stained carpet!), but it’s also the capper for the most embarrassing screen performance of one of the world’s best film actresses.  DiCaprio fares no better than Winslet; kudos for investing himself so deeply, but man, all of his ranting and raving is too big for the stage let alone the screen.

Put simply, Revolutionary Road is the antithesis of It’s a Wonderful Life.  Its worldview sees George Bailey as a failure.  Its version of Capra’s classic would not include Clarence (and would thus end tragically at the bridge).  Granted, does anyone ever get an actual Angel in their lives to spell it all out for them?  Technically, no.  But Clarence was merely a narrative cipher for the life-affirming values so authentically revealed through God’s Word, a relationship with Jesus, the Holy Spirit's guidance and community of saints.  And that's what’s missing in the bleak solipsism of Revolutionary Road.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Alcohol is consumed.  People are inebriated.  Occasional cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity:  A liberal but not excessive use of most profanities, including the “F” word and the Lord’s name taken in vain.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Intercourse between the married spouses occurs in the kitchen spontaneously; the full act is depicted but without nudity.  Moments of infidelity by both spouses.  The husband’s occurs off-camera.  The wife’s occurs in the front seat of a car; the whole sexual act is depicted from beginning to end in one shot, but without nudity.
  • Violence/Other:  Many intense verbal/emotional fights, but no physical altercations.  An off-camera act of self-inflicted violence is strongly suggested, then confirmed by the person bleeding underneath clothing and creating a small blood-pool on the living room carpet.

 

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of the "Steelehouse Podcast,” along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to the "Steelehouse Podcast” through iTunes.