Artists have been trying to burn down the suburbs almost since the paint was dry on the first white picket fence, but few have managed to create such a completely mesmerizing conflagration as Sam Mendes. In adapting Richard Yates' incendiary 1961 novel — a touchstone for the bedroom anxieties of Carver and Cheever and dozens more — which spoke to postwar anxiety in much the same way as Mendes' debut American Beauty burst the happy bubble of the '90s, Mendes made a dynamite film, and found a vehicle to make old themes fresh, exciting and alive.
Much of that life comes from the brilliant re-teaming of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler, the seemingly quintessential young '50s couple, golden and perfect in all ways except those that matter; there's a glittering facade rotting from within. We get a brief, intoxicating glimpse of their meeting at a party, where they are turned on by each other's smarts and mystery, then flash forward to the claustrophobic, volatile marriage in which they've found themselves trapped.
The once-adventurous Frank is now a white-collar wage slave at the same soulless company where his father toiled in obscurity. He plugs away in cubicle jail to keep his pretty young family in comfy domestic seclusion. The work's unfulfilling, mostly because it's too easy for him — whether he's dashing off clever inter-company memos or casually seducing a doe-eyed gal from the secretarial pool. He doesn't act out of malice, simply instinct and boredom; he can hardly imagine what he wants for dinner let alone what shape his life will take.
Wife April, meanwhile, knows only shapes; the boxes within boxes piled up on the neat tree-lined streets that hem in her existence. She wants something else, something better, but in her own desperate, foolish hope she's no closer to the answers than he is. With her acting dreams dashed, and her other horizons dimming, she concocts an escape plan for them to Paris. There she'll work as a translator and Frank will find new inspiration. This crazy scheme lifts their spirits at first, but scares the neighbors, and gradually the fantasy slams into reality, and no amount of cocktails or infidelities can cover the bruise.
We've seen stories like this before, but we've rarely seen them so clearly; the exquisite period detail and Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography makes every dandelion sparkle. And the performances are all razor-sharp, from Zoe Kazan as the swoony secretary to Kathy Bates as the ceaselessly chipper realtor.
The true standout is Michael Shannon, as Bates' intense son. He's fresh from "the loony bin," though his only malady appears to be a gift for blunt truths, which he blurts with every sentence. Shannon streaks through the movie comet-like, and he'd derail the chemistry of lesser actors, but the leads are in superb form. DiCaprio seethes with hollow rage, a scrappy little marionette in a gray flannel suit trying to keep his head up, as Winslet slashes and claws, sinking further into a depression he can't fathom. Perhaps Revolutionary Road isn't the last word on suburban angst, but it says so much about these people, these poor, beautiful, doomed fools frozen in immaculate mid-century amber.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].