Revolutionary Road (2008)

Directed by Sam Mendes


I like Revolutionary Road for the same reasons I like Mad Men.  It’s a story set in the 1960s, depicting a world of both monotony and intense beauty.  That beauty is a bit disturbing, considering all the injustices and prejudices and overt racism that helped define the decade, but I believe there remains a certain charming aesthetic to this time and place though that may subjectively be the case with any period piece movie.

The husband takes the train into Manhattan to work alongside thousands of other men, dressed in the same gray suit and basking in the same clouds of cigarette smoke.  The wife remains home in the suburbs, with plenty of space to breathe but too much to have any meaningful connections with the people around.  The husband hates his boring job, and the wife laments the purgatory-like existence of playing the home maker.  Each world is a prison.  In one things move too fast and in the other too slow.

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet) are the perfect couple on the outside.  They’re admired, adored and the type of family any real estate agent would want on their block to help boost the value of the neighborhood.  Kathy Bates plays that real estate agent, Mrs. Givings, who sold the Wheelers their home and seems to be their only friend out in the suburbs.

There is a quick prologue which introduces us to the young Frank and April, living with some vibrancy in the city.  They meet at a party, express a positive outlook on life, nurtured within their respective ambitions.  Then we fast-forward to a local theater where April’s play bombs.  She sees herself as a failure, and Frank isn’t sure how to comfort her.  They get into a nasty fight on the drive home, pull over to the side of the road, and Frank nearly swings his fist at her.  Then we get the title card.

So this is a story about an unhappily married couple.

Revolutionary Road is a hard movie to watch.  Director Sam Mendes builds up this image of the picture perfect couple and spends the rest of the movie picking them apart and tearing them down.  It’s like a less whimsical version of a Wes Anderson movie, with its emotionally damaged characters framed in their perfectly arranged boxes.  The movie’s title comes from that perfectly arranged box, their house on Revolutionary Road.

The movie will end with Mrs. Givings fawning over the new couple in the Wheelers’ old home, saying that they are perfect for the house.  What about the Wheelers?  Her husband asks, referring to her adoration for the couple.  Mrs. Givings will say she never really bought into them, they were always too impulsive for her taste.  Now it’s about the new couple who fits into that box, a married couple that looks the part but who we can be sure has something going on underneath the facade.

So the movie’s title and this epilogue frames the story as one about image and perception.  Everyone around the Wheelers perceives them to be a certain way, just as they themselves have this idea of what life is supposed to be.  They’ve been married for a number of years, long enough to have two kids, and it’s just now that the realization is setting in that this isn’t what they’re looking for.

They’ve followed the rules and begun to live the life they were told to live, but it’s not enough.  When they come up with a plan to leave it all behind and move to Paris, it gives them a sense of purpose that fills the gaping hole in their lives, but it challenges the perspectives of everyone around them.  They’re plan to move to Paris might as well be a plan to colonize Mars, on their own.  No one else can believe it, partially because this way of life not being enough for the Wheelers offends everyone else for whom it is enough.  Either that or they too realize it’s not what they want, but they’re unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

The Wheelers each buy into this plan, but when Frank receives a promotion and a pay raise, followed by April’s third pregnancy, he expresses hesitation towards this plan.  This leads to an incredibly long and painful fight, one of the hardest to watch that I can remember in any movie.  It involves the final breakdown of any affection between the couple, and it makes you wonder just how long it’s been since either of them loved the other.  It also becomes clear that any plan to move to Paris was never going to solve the issues that ran this deep.  It was a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, and it’s up to you to decide if they were insane or if everyone else around them is.

The next morning, following the explosive fight, April calmly makes Frank breakfast, and he quietly eats and smiles, playing the part of the happy husband.  He tries to ask if they’re okay, even if it’s clear they’re not, but April nods her head, deflecting and encouraging him to go on as if nothing has happened.  Once he leaves, she attempts to give herself an abortion.  It goes wrong, and she dies.

The movie then ends with the people around the Wheelers.  We see their neighbors, the Campbells (David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn).  Shep Campbell long harbored romantic feelings towards April, and when they welcome the new neighbors, he begs his wife to stop talking about them.

Frank has moved on to live in the city with his kids, but we only know this because Mrs. Givings explains it to the new residents of the house on Revolutionary Road.  Finally, we get that moment between Mrs. Givings and her husband, as she somewhat politely shits on the grave of the Wheelers, retroactively correcting her feelings towards the couple because they didn’t end up perfectly fitting the box in which she had placed them.

I kind of love movies that frame the story through another character’s point of view.  It adds a layer of ambiguity to the narrative.  You can read it literally, or you can read it through the filter of a possibly unreliable narrator.  A film like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides is a great example of this.

Such a framing device always seems to comment on how we watch movies or take in stories in general.  It’s about the story but even more about the interpretation of that story.  When we listen to someone speak, are we truly listening or just filtering out certain aspects of what they say to better validate our own pre-existing beliefs?  We have a world view, and we tend to gather information which only affirms that view.

Mrs. Givings is certainly guilty of this, and Frank Wheeler too.  As adults we tend to harden, become more firm in our beliefs in convictions, but it also builds barriers between ourselves and others as well as between ourselves and the world.  In this way the ego wins out, and this is where I’m inclined to get much more spiritual…

Spirituality for dummies by a dummie:

The ego is this thing that wants to survive at the costs of your own happiness.  That’s why we look to the past or the future to try and define ourselves.  In doing so, we forget about the present.  To be really present, really aware and curious, we have to transcend the ego.  We are more than just our brain, but our brain would have us believe that it is all we are.  The brain is a tool, like any muscle, but it’s always on.  The past is something that only really exists to better influence the present (i.e. we remember that a flame is hot so we don’t ever touch a flame), but we tend to focus on the past (or the future) with no real purpose.  We dwell on certain things or eagerly anticipate others because doing so helps us deal with a present that might not live up to our hopes and dreams.  This is all a way to keep “me” alive, aka the ego.  The ego is what separates us from the world and gives us our identity.

April Wheeler is excited for the future, and Frank Wheeler clings to the past.  They do so because they’re miserable, and they don’t like who they are.  By looking to the past or future they are hoping to better cope with the present, and for a time it works.  Yet this underlying dissatisfaction is what makes me think that the “present” will always fail to live up to their expectations.  If they were to move to Paris, I’m almost certain this fight would have happened regardless.

So what April and Frank really need to do is to let go, but that’s not an option.  Is it ever an option?  We are human, after all, and it’s in our nature to ‘do’ rather than to ‘be.’  Their goal is to eventually ‘be,’ but I think this is impossible for most people out there.  The American Dream tells us that we can work our asses off and achieve everything we want, the family, the career, the financial security, and everything down to the picket fence.  Frank and April have achieved this post-war dream, and it’s not enough.

Revolutionary Road is an indictment of the illusion of the American Dream.  It focuses on the Wheelers, but through its subjective perspective of the characters who surround them, it’s a film that undercuts the ways we all live.  The Wheelers at least identified the first barrier, that ‘this’ is not enough.  Still, they were never really on the right path.  It’s like how a rehab center will allow you to continue smoking cigarettes while you clean the heroin addiction from your system.  It’s not that you should smoke cigarettes, but it’s one step at a time.

For the Wheelers, that step was to admit that something was missing.  In this way they are ahead of everyone else, but everyone else would have it so they never leave, and when the Wheelers’ plan fails, everyone else shrugs and smugly says, “I told you so.”

The Wheelers’ story is incredibly tragic, and in the end it is told with the weight of a thousand year old legend… The determined Wheelers who would challenge conventional wisdom and the world at large…”  It’s this perspective, the importance of this story being told through the eyes of others, that gives the story meaning.  We live in a world that tells us how to live, and the idea of doing anything other than what you’re told is blasphemy.

That being said, this is an incredibly dramatic story that makes it seem as if living the way the Wheelers live is unbearable.  The truth is, I think, that many people were okay living as they did.  This is a story that feels to be from the perspective of a teenager who can’t imagine why anyone would sell out.  Some people are happy living the suburban family life, just not the Wheelers.  So again, the question is posed, who’s crazy, the Wheelers or the world around them?

Up Next: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Naked Kiss (1964), Wall-E (2008)

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