The lead-up to the 2008 release of Revolutionary Road was almost impossible to ignore. The film’s great selling point was its re-pairing of Kate Winslet and Leonard DiCaprio, their first collaboration since Titanic (1997), which had instantly made them superstars. It didn’t hurt that it had a crackerjack trailer, too. But once the film arrived, that anticipation suddenly dissipated like air leaking from a balloon.
Those who weren’t familiar with Richard Yates’ novel, which had been out of print for years following its New Year’s Eve publication in 1961, couldn’t latch on to the romantic ideal they’d developed for Winslet and DiCaprio. A majority of the film’s reviews were positive, and it turned a respectable profit, but there was an air of missed opportunity, as if Revolutionary Road could have been something bigger, more special. Looking back on the film with the distance of more than a decade, it’s easier to understand its soft impact. The film that Sam Mendes directed is faithful to the novel (though not too faithful), but it complicates the simple narrative that the novel was about the dangers of conformity in 1950s America and the strangling atmosphere of the suburbs. The movie is certainly about those things, but Mendes emphasizes an even darker aspect of Revolutionary Road: its central couple was never going to make it, even if they escaped to their fantasy version of Paris.
The film opens before any of that is clear, however. Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio), a longshoreman whose only aspiration at the moment is to be a cashier, meets April (Winslet) at a party. He may not be dreaming of being much more than a dock worker, but she has her heart set on becoming an actress. Of course, they fall in love, and Frank begins the process of settling by taking a position at the firm where his father toiled in anonymity for decades. They move out to a lovely suburban Connecticut home on the cynically Revolutionary Road once April gets pregnant, then they have a second child “to prove the first one wasn’t a mistake,” as she later puts it.
Justin Haythe’s screenplay skips those subsequent events to go from that idyllic first meeting to a disastrous amateur theater production years later. April knows their production of The Petrified Forest is a stinker, but even if she didn’t, the scowls on the faces in the audience would make it clear enough. On the drive home, she and Frank get into a shouting match after he can’t stop pointing out how terrible the show was, which he thinks is somehow comforting to her. Later, Frank and April will come up with a bright idea to escape the doldrums of their lives and the suburbs: they’ll move to Paris. But the bitter juxtaposition of the bright beginning and the disappointing later years is the first inkling that the two won’t be able to escape their troubles abroad — because they’re failures.
April’s realization comes early enough with the disastrous theater piece. A less interesting film would have positioned her as a talented actress weighed down by amateurs, but Mendes makes it clear from the disappointed look on Frank’s face that she simply wasn’t up to the task. Their Parisian escape might offer a less restrictive social milieu for her to float through, but it won’t suddenly make her a star of the stage and screen. Her options will always be limited, and certainly more limited than those of her husband. Mendes was married to Winslet at the time, and perhaps their comfort working together was what allowed him to be so unforgiving when it came to April’s hopes and dreams.
Revolutionary Road is even harsher when it comes to Frank’s potential. Once the two decide they’ll run off to Paris, he can’t even articulate what he would do there; it’ll just be time for him to explore his options while April works as a secretary to support the two. Frank doesn’t have any ambitions, and even when he finally has some success at work with an embarrassing advertising slogan that earns him the admiration of a superior, he doesn’t take that as a sign that he might be a writer. Instead, it causes him to rethink the whole plan. Maybe they shouldn’t go to Paris. Maybe he should just stick it out for a promotion, and then they’ll be able to move to a tonier Connecticut neighborhood, or perhaps closer to New York City. When April finds out she’s pregnant with their third child, the rush toward cementing their status in suburban Middle America is overwhelming, but Mendes and Haythe suggest their escape plan may have been illusory all along.
Mendes started his career as a stage director, where he became famous for his dark reinterpretations of classic stage works, particularly the musical Cabaret, which won multiple Tony Awards after it transferred to Broadway. His ability to find the seedier aspects of existing works is shown to great effect in Revolutionary Road, particularly in how he and DiCaprio work together to shape his performance. Frank can barely conceal his contempt toward April throughout the latter years of their marriage, and he carries on an affair with a secretary at work without as much as a thought for how she might feel. He seems almost gleeful about the prospect, but not because he’s smitten with the girl (played by a wonderful Zoe Kazan). It’s more that he’s delighted that he’s allowed this one bit of freedom. When he and April fight over her wish to abort the pregnancy that threatens their plans to move, he seethes with rage at her. It’s not so much that he desperately wants the child, but he can’t stand the idea of her deciding on her own without him having the final, decisive say.
It’s not surprising that things end in tragedy for the two, and Frank is left a shell of his former self. Mendes films DiCaprio’s final scene as he sits on a park bench watching his children play on a swing set, and there’s a smile on his face, to keep up appearances, but boundless pain in his eyes. Just before that, we learn that he’s no longer at the firm, but instead is working in the burgeoning field of computers. He’s a person with no spark, nothing outside the ordinary, and he’ll help design cookie-cutter parts to facilitate the purely rational calculations of a machine. Another director would have left the audience cursing the ways 1950s America chiseled away any interesting aspect of Frank’s personality, but Mendes’ vision is even more cynical. As far as he’s concerned, there was nothing of Frank to chisel away in the first place.