Nothing to Say and No Way to Say It: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road movie poster


The first few min­utes of Sam Mendes’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road fea­ture one of the bold­est jump cuts this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet cute out of a crowd of Beat­nik hip­sters at a loft party. Like any flirt­ing young cou­ple, how each chooses to intro­duce them­self com­prises a promise as to whom each will become should they grow up together. The glam­orous April sim­ply says she is study­ing to be an actress, as if that is all Frank needs to know. He in turn cracks wise about toil­ing in noth­ing jobs hold­ing him back from vaguely-defined great aspi­ra­tions. After this very brief scene, Mendes jump cuts to sev­eral years later to find Frank and April mar­ried in sub­ur­bia with two kids. An older Frank pri­vately cringes dur­ing April’s weak debut in a com­mu­nity the­ater pro­duc­tion. It turns out she’s not a great actress after all, but cursed to be just smart and sen­si­tive enough to know it. Her sense of defin­i­tive fail­ure and his frus­tra­tion at her frus­tra­tion com­busts into a blis­ter­ing road­side argu­ment on par with any of the cat­a­clysmic rows between Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton in Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf?.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road“You were just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

Frank and April’s all-consuming pride escapes as barely-veiled con­de­scen­sion toward their peers in the office and on their sub­ur­ban street. They both share mutu­ally incom­pat­i­ble senses of supe­ri­or­ity, feel­ing des­tined for some­thing great with­out know­ing what, or hav­ing any obvi­ous nat­ural tal­ent to nur­ture. It pro­vides no sat­is­fac­tion when Frank does even­tu­ally man­i­fest an apti­tude in mar­ket­ing, some­thing they both view as dis­ap­point­ing and beneath them. Who or what propped them up with this sense of supe­ri­or­ity? Are we to read their hubris as a cri­tique of the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion (Frank is a World War II vet­eran, an expe­ri­ence he roman­ti­cizes even while acknowl­edg­ing his sheer ter­ror at the time)? This gen­er­a­tional the­ory would be sup­ported by how the older Giv­ings fam­ily views them — but more on the Giv­ings later. Or were Frank and April’s egos boosted by over­prais­ing par­ents? We hear much of Frank’s late father, who toiled in obscu­rity for years at the same firm where Frank now finds him­self trapped, but any other rel­a­tives are wholly absent from their lives. Per­haps if Frank and April had been born a few gen­er­a­tions later, they would be the sort of over­con­fi­dent per­son­al­i­ties drawn to com­pete on real­ity TV shows.

After April gives up on her dream of act­ing after her dis­as­trous debut, she latches onto a fan­tasy of mov­ing to Paris and sup­port­ing Frank so he may find his. But Frank is even less evolved than she; he never spec­i­fies what he imag­ines him­self becom­ing. Writer? Politi­cian? Artist? He has noth­ing to say, and no way to say it. Their Gal­lic escape plan is not fully thought through, and Frank never really com­mits any­way. He’s clever enough to excel amongst the duller cowork­ers with whom he shares daily steak and mar­tini lunches. He becomes fur­ther ensnared by suc­cess in the busi­ness world, as mea­sured by income, the sex­ual avail­abil­ity of naïve office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking lad­der of promotion.

Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road“Hope­less empti­ness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of peo­ple are onto the empti­ness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

One flaw of the film is dia­logue that some­times strays from nat­u­ral­ism into the nov­el­is­tic. Even in the midst of the fiercest of argu­ments, April is still poised enough to deliver zingers like “No one for­gets the truth, Frank, they just get bet­ter at lying” and “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

I promised to return to the Giv­ings fam­ily, whom I believe are the key to under­stand­ing the film. Helen Giv­ings (Kathy Bates) gen­tly teaches April how to be a good house­wife, offer­ing pas­sive aggres­sive cri­tiques of such frip­peries as lawn main­te­nance. But she slowly reveals a long­ing admi­ra­tion for the Wheel­ers as an ideal Amer­i­can nuclear fam­ily: a nice, good-looking, suc­cess­ful, model young cou­ple in love (their coarse neigh­bors the Camp­bells also ide­al­ize the Wheel­ers). Helen hopes that some of their pixie dust might rub off on her trou­bled son John (Michael Shan­non), a math­e­mati­cian and intel­lec­tual brought low by men­tal ill­ness and elec­troshock ther­apy (whether it is the dis­ease or the cure that ails him most is a ques­tion that bleakly amuses him). John proves to have the cold­est, clear­est, stark­est view of real­ity, and cuts right through all the sub­terfuge and dou­ble­s­peak with which these Amer­i­can nuclear fam­i­lies delude them­selves. Every­thing he says is right, but trag­i­cally, Frank and April inter­pret the bit­terly dam­aged man as a kin­dred spirit and not as what he is: a holy fool (in the sense of idiot savant) that damn­ingly illus­trates their faults.

Kathy Bates in Revolutionary RoadHelen admires the Wheel­ers’ splen­did pic­ture win­dow look­ing out on Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road

In some ways, the final scene is the most dev­as­tat­ing, and it doesn’t even fea­ture the Wheel­ers at all. The Giv­ings chat at home alone, long after the Wheel­ers revealed them­selves to be fatally frac­tious and tor­tured. We wit­ness Helen rewrite his­tory, belit­tling the Wheel­ers in terms of their abil­ity to main­tain the value of their home (read: their fam­ily). As she’s busy eras­ing her emo­tional stake in the Wheel­ers, her hus­band Howard (Richard Eas­ton) turns off his hear­ing aid to lit­er­ally drown her out. He gazes at her emp­tily, dis­pas­sion­ately, dead inside. We might imag­ine their mar­riage sur­vived the kind of emo­tional flash­point that destroyed the Wheel­ers, but trapped them in a cold, love­less life together.

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