Film Length: 119 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 5.1; French DD 5.1; Spanish DD 5.1
Subtitles: English; French; Spanish
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 26, 2008
DVD Release Date: June 2, 2009
I'm among the few people I know who liked Revolutionary Road. It didn't do much box office, and
the critical consensus, while generally favorable, seemed to give more credit to the actors and the
source material than to the film as a whole. Director Sam Mendes must be used to it by now.
Ever since he won the best director Oscar for his freshman film, American Beauty, his films have
been viewed with suspicion, as if Mendes had somehow bribed his way into an exclusive club
and everyone was clucking about the scandal. Whether in published reviews or online forums,
subsequent Mendes efforts like Road to Perdition and Jarhead have been derided as "phony",
"soulless", "superficial treatment.
Which is a shame, because it's Mendes' best film to date. It's the first time he's had enough
confidence as a filmmaker to dispense with "stylistic flourishes" (his own phrase), like the rose
petals in American Beauty, and focus all the attention on the actors and the drama in the manner
of classical masters like Sidney Lumet or Billy Wilder. The result is the most intimate and
uncomfortable portrait of a marriage in crisis since Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?
(Disclaimer: I haven't read the novel by Richard Yates from which the film was adapted. Mendes
and screenwriter Justin Haythe are clearly satisfied that theirs is a faithful adaptation, but I can
only judge the film on its own merits.)
April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) are a young couple who meet,
fall in love and marry shortly after World War II. She wants to be an actress; he doesn't know
what he wants to do, but aspires to lead a life that is "interesting". In a pair of bookended scenes
opening the film, we see how Frank and April first spot each other at a party in New York and
instantly sense a kindred yearning. Then we fast forward to 1955, when they are married with
two children and living in what was then the brave new world of suburbia. April is making her
debut with a community theater group, and the debut does not go well. As they drive home from
the performance, long-simmering tensions boil over to such a degree that Frank pulls the car over
and the couple get out and have a full-blown screaming argument.
Welcome to Revolutionary Road.
Brief flashbacks show us April and Frank in happier times before they moved to the suburbs, and
we follow them on their first viewing of the house on Revolutionary Road, accompanied by a
chirpy broker (now their friend and neighbor) ironically named Helen Givings (Kathy Bates,
adding another memorable portrait to her seemingly inexhaustible supply of distinctive
characters). Back in the present, Frank and April deal separately with the rift in their marriage.
Frank, who, instead of finding an "interesting" life, now works in the marketing department of
the same business machine company that employed his father for 20 years, seduces a young
secretary (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan). Meanwhile, April
conceives a bold plan to save their marriage. They'll sell the house on Revolutionary Road and
move the family to Paris, to which Frank has said he's always wanted to return. April will find a
job doing secretarial work for one of the various international agencies. They'll be happier, the
cost of living will be less, and Frank will finally have a chance to figure out what he really wants
to do, without the pressure of supporting a family.
Though initially taken aback by April's proposal, Frank acquiesces, and for a brief time, the
Wheelers are close again, united against an uncomprehending chorus of friends and co-workers
who can't fathom what's gotten into this nice young couple. (There is a pivotal conversation
between Frank and April in their kitchen just after they've told their best friends Shep and Millie
about the Paris plan. Listen carefully; the key to everything that follows is in that exchange.)
The only one who approves is John Givings (Michael Shannon, in a volcanic, Oscar-nominated
performance), the son of the Wheelers' friend and real estate broker. John currently resides in a
mental institution where he has received numerous electroshock treatments for a condition that is
never specified, although there are references to previous acts of threatened violence against his
mother. Perhaps because she is afraid of her son, or perhaps for the stated reason that Frank and
April are closer to John's age, Helen Givings asks them to entertain her family when John is
allowed out for a visit. John is an unsettling presence, but he is also uninhibited; he asks direct
questions and makes uncensored observations that would be considered rude from someone who
couldn't be dismissed as being "sick" (his mother's preferred term). As a viewer, you're left to
wonder what effect it has on April and Frank as each one realizes that the only person who seems
to understand them is certifiable.
Obstacles begin to appear. One is a lucrative promotion dangled before Frank by a senior
company executive (Jay O. Sanders, a great character actor). Others must be left for viewers to
discover for themselves. I do not consider it a spoiler to say that, although the Wheelers
ultimately leave Revolutionary Road, they do not make it to Paris. Perhaps the saddest and yet
most provocative moments in the film are the final scenes, in which their former friends smooth
over the hole that the Wheelers have punched in the surface of daily normalcy. Shep and Millie
agree not to talk about them anymore (Shep has his own private reasons). Helen Givings explains
to her husband, in a shameless about-face, that there was always something wrong with that
couple - the same nice young people she had previously praised to the skies. Meanwhile, her
husband stares back at her and, with unchanging expression, turns down his hearing aide until her
voice drops out completely. For him, apparently, the secret to a lasting marriage is knowing when
to tune out.
Revolutionary Road was widely anticipated as the first reunion of Winslet and DiCaprio since
Titanic, but there is nothing romantic about this film. It's a sober and unsparing study of two
young idealists who suddenly have to deal with the realization that they're ordinary - and who
react to that realization differently because society and biology give them different options.
Because Frank and April are portrayed by two actors who have a close, established working
relationship and who are unsurpassed at conveying their characters' inner worlds, we as audience
members get to experience their emotions with a force and intensity that those around Frank and
April would never suspect. An iceberg may not sink a ship in this film (though production
designer Kristi Zea did manage to smuggle an upended picture of the Titanic into the background
of one scene), but the forces tearing at Frank and April register with a similar impact.
This makes for a challenging film, but to me that's a recommendation. I've never understood
how people can be so entertained watching bodies being mowed down by gunfire and explosions,
then turn dainty over a little emotional violence. As the saying goes, it's only a movie.
The DVD image is adequate, though not without its problems. The production design utilized a
muted color pallette, and the photography (by the incomparable Roger Deakins) used a softly lit
look intended to evoke a sense of older times. The result is a challenge for the limits of NTSC
video, and detail is frequently not as distinct as one might hope. (By contrast, Mad Men, which is
set in roughly the same period, uses a photographic style derived from advertising in which every
surface is brightly lit, which makes it easier to translate for DVD.) The limitations will be more
apparent on larger screens, such as the 72" DLP set I use. On smaller screens, it should be less of
an issue. Regardless of screen size, the delicate colors have been faithfully and accurately
rendered, and this becomes particularly obvious in the occasional scene, of which there are only a
few, when colors become more saturated to reflect a particular mood (I'm thinking of one
particular sequence in a bar; you'll know it when you see it).
There is occasional aliasing, but it's minor, and I also noticed a few edge halos, but nothing
distracting. If any DNR was applied, it was not enough to make a visible impact at NTSC
Sound effects are not important in Revolutionary Road, but dialogue editing is. This is a dramatic
film where pauses, timber, shifts in intonation and modulations of volume can be freighted with
significance, and the dialogue editing must be seamless. The DD 5.1 track reproduces the
dialogue naturally and effectively, often painfully so. The other major component of the audio is
Thomas Newman's moody, brooding score, which beautifully expands through all five channels
to become a kind of spectral presence lifting the viewer up and slightly away from the raw
emotions being exposed by the characters. (Disclaimer: The Lexicon processor I use is particular
good at this kind of musical reproduction; so your mileage may vary.) At many moments in
Revolutionary Road, Newman's score is the closest thing there is to an element of grace, because
words just fail.
Except where noted, video material in the special features is enhanced for 16:9.
Commentary by director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe. Mendes talks us
through the film, explaining his intentions and directorial decisions, and discussing with Haythe
what had to be changed from the novel. He also provides substantial information about editing
changes between the initial cut of the film and the finished product. Haythe, who was present on
set throughout shooting, is a more active and interesting contributor than writers usually are on
commentary tracks, and it's obvious that he and Mendes shared a fruitful collaboration.
Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mendes and Haythe (9:50). There are five
individual scenes, all but the last of which Mendes says he was sorry to lose. Each of them would
have added something to the film, but pacing concerns ultimately had to govern.
Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road (29:01). A reasonably
informative making-of featurette combining interviews with on-set footage. Interviewees include
Mendes, Winslet and DiCaprio, as well as Haythe, Shannon, Kazan and members of the
production team. Mendes talks about the evolution of the project, and Winslet talks about
persuading DiCaprio to take the part. Mendes and the production team talk about the rigors of
shooting in real locations instead of soundstages, although the one person who would have
suffered the most, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is nowhere to be found.
Trailers. The film is preceded by non-enhanced trailers for The Curious Case of Benjamin
Button, Defiance and There Will Be Blood. The trailers can be bypassed with the menu button
and are also accessible from the special features menu.
Ironically, Revolutionary Road may have been exactly the wrong film for Mendes to decide to
avoid all "stylistic flourishes". Since first seeing the film, I've started to catch up with Mad Men,
and I'm struck by the fact that this hugely successful series, which depicts roughly the same time
period and social milieu and mores as Revolutionary Road, takes the exact opposite approach by
stylizing everything to the utmost, almost as if it were a period costume drama. Maybe the era is
now far enough behind us that this is how it should be treated. Similar approaches were evident
in the black-and-white photography that George Clooney used for Good Night and Good Luck or
the lovingly recreated Sirkian tableaus that Todd Haynes conjured in Far From Heaven. Maybe
this is how the American Fifties have to be presented now: as something so purely historical that
they can only be imagined.
Revolutionary Road treats the period as living memory, as something that still might be present
in the mind of the viewer. The look is that of old photographs, and the people are portrayed as
people we might have known (at one point, Mendes calls it "method" production design). This
isn't a stretch if you grew up in Fifties suburbia, as I did, but the bulk of today's movie-going
public did not. I suspect this leaves a lot of viewers without an obvious route into the film. Thus,
by insisting on a naturalistic approach to storytelling, Mendes may have undermined his ability to
connect to a larger audience.
But only for the moment. Cinema being what it is, the narrative techniques of Revolutionary
Road may some day look just as dated as the period it portrays. Maybe at that point the film's
style and its substance will seem more in sync, and the film will be rediscovered and reevaluated.
Period issues aside, I doubt that the challenges facing couples trying to build a life together will
become any easier in the foreseeable future, and it'll be a long time before anyone makes a film
that dramatizes them as forcefully as Revolutionary Road.
Equipment used for this review:
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub