“Revolutionary Road” and the Lost Art of Knowing What Isn’t Special

Revolutionary Road Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road. (Paramount)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. Since December sees the release of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917, we’re looking back at the London theater director-turned-filmmaker’s eclectic works. Read the rest of our coverage here.

For better or worse, Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road closes a loop that American Beauty opened. His career as a filmmaker bloomed with his 1999 debut film written by Alan Ball, which critiqued the mundanity of 1990s suburban life. With 2008’s Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, he and screenwriter Justin Haythe adapted Richard Yates’s novel of the same name to similarly critique the mundanity of 1950s suburban life. Some things never change, I guess.

That said, Revolutionary Road certainly stands the test of time much firmer than American Beauty: its leading man is not one of the Most Cancelled Celebrities In Hollywood, and it doesn’t wear its pretensions so proudly on its sleeve as the 1999 Best Picture-winner does. But even a decade out, it represents a very particular brand of prestige filmmaking that peaked in the mid-to-late 2000s only to lose some relevance over the past few years.

From the opening moments of the film—a meet-cute between Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) flash-forwarding to a night at the theater gone wrong—we know their fate will not be kind. Like many post-war white American couples, the Wheelers are convinced they are “special,” that the American Dream will work in their favor. But life, and fear, have a funny way of shattering dreams and making safety seem sparkling. Frank’s cold feet and stubbornness bring April’s desires to escape her homebound life are brought to a halt, all winding up to a tragic ending that still lands a blow over a decade later.

Much was made at the time of DiCaprio and Winslet’s screen reunion here more than a decade after their famed courtship in 1997’s Titanic, and their work here certainly cements their place as two of our generations finest actors. I’d be remiss to say that DiCaprio and Winslet are giving their best performances here, but they’re certainly giving their most performances.

Mendes’s history as a stage director is most evident in Revolutionary Road, a film baked in the kind of scenery-chewing shouting matches that characterized much of early 20th century American playwriting. Though initially positioned as a major Oscar frontrunner, the film only earned three nominations: Costume Design; Production Design; and Supporting Actor, for Michael Shannon’s steamrolling performance as the intellectually maniacal John Givings, Jr. He’s only in two scenes, but his presence is towering as he tears down the Wheelers’ life right in front of them. The most terrifying thing of all? He’s right, and even they know it.

It’s hard to say if a film with the quiet bombast here could be made today. Much of the territory it occupies in the filmmaking landscape tends to skew towards more contemporary stories of marital tension; this year’s Marriage Story contains similar scenes of exquisitely acted, scenery-chewing melodrama. On the other hand are stories that shift the lens away from the white gaze. (Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk springs to mind as a similar “prestige” love story adapted from a classic piece of literature.)

…life, and fear, have a funny way of shattering dreams and making safety seem sparkling.

There is an undeniable beauty to the world of Revolutionary Road, from Roger Deakins’s tensely framed cinematography to the aforementioned, picture-perfect production design of Debra Schutt and Kristi Zea. Its storytelling is intimate yet epic, containing moments of pure subtlety and obnoxious, head-pounding obviousness. And yet, viewing a particular story told by these particular artists at this particular time, there is still beauty there. It very well might never be told this way again.

Revolutionary Road Trailer:

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