Suburban malaise is well-worn territory in just about every realm of artistic expression, but Sam Mendes has breathed new life into what appear to be his pet themes: alienation and disappointment in middle-class America. Based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel of the same title, Revolutionary Road follows the relationship between April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-purportedly “special” couple marooned in suburbia by what April deems an accidental pregnancy. This may seem a shallow excuse for the domestication of the couple’s beatnik dreams, but it in no way undermines the rather morbid allure of these characters. Their relationship with each other as well as with the dull group of neighbors and colleagues that surround them makes for an intriguing, if not entirely novel, portrait of middle-class resistance and resignation.
We are introduced to the couple as they dangle on the precipice of a major turning point. April forces her husband to confront his vague, but nagging, professional ambition by suggesting that the family move to Paris, a city she has never seen, but in which she invests all hope of realizing a fulfilling marriage.
In a rather provocative twist, the couple’s audacity is entirely bound up with their investment in traditional gender roles. More specifically, both partners share an acute fear of emasculating the resident head of household. April does not pitch Paris as Frank’s opportunity for self-discovery without reminding him, “It's what you are that's being denied and denied in this kind of life…You're the most beautiful and wonderful thing in the world. You're a man.” The only character that seems to appreciate this irony is John Givings (Michael Shannon), a troubled mathematician whose piercing insight into the Wheeler’s self-deception penetrates the smooth narrative of daring individualism that has fooled the rest of the neighborhood.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance relies heavily on desperate shrieks and squeals that lend him a petulant air of adolescent fervor. While unattractive, this technique appropriately highlights his character’s juvenile sense of entitlement to a life he is unwilling to pursue. Kate Winslet delivers a stronger performance as April, mainly because of her ability to transition so jarringly from rigid outlaw to appeasing housewife and back again. Her face consistently reveals a degree of bravery and defiance that contrast starkly with Mr. DiCaprio’s puffy punum.
While it never quite accomplishes sublime heights of aesthetic insight, the value of this film lies in its unflinching exploration of disappointment in its many shapes and forms. From the mundane jealousies of the housewife next door to more violent acts of suburban frustration, Mr. Mendes exposes the consequences of our thwarted desire for something inexplicably better than the life we’ve got. His style is chilly and more observational than it is probing, but Mr. Mendes is able to transform what would be nonthreatening, beige interiors into battlegrounds that produce extreme tension and occasionally even suspense.
By the end of the film, it becomes clear that April’s performance as a happy housewife is far more appealing to Frank than her restless ambition for a more exceptional way of life—an ambition that initially ties the couple together. Ultimately, Revolutionary Road can be read as a cautionary tale, but it warns less against the stifling sameness of suburban life than against submission to the circumstances of the lives we’ve created for ourselves.