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The epic saga of Jack and Rose continues in the form of two young, suburbanite lovebirds in Connecticut who discover that married life may not be what they thought it would be. If anyone has seen the movie Titanic, you’ll notice that Revolutionary Road features the same actors, Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio, as romantically involved, not as star-crossed lovers but rather as a newly married couple. While this is a totally different film and set in a different time period, part of what makes Revolutionary Road a great and memorable film is the acting by DiCaprio and Winslet.
Once again, they are the leading roles in a movie where the acting can make or break the film. Similar to their previous movie together in Titanic, Revolutionary Road is a character-driven film with intense emotional moments and a message that stays with you deeply after the final credits roll. Michael Shannon, a very well-renowned actor, almost steals the show from Leonardo and Kate as John Giving, the brilliant yet disturbed son of the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Givings. Helen Giving (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband help the Wheelers to buy their home at 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.
Revolutionary Road, released in 2008, was directed by Sam Mendes who has also directed other classic American movies including Road to Perdition and American Beauty. Mendes is a talented director who does an excellent job finding the right actors to fit the character-driven roles that they have to sell to the audience. In a way, Revolutionary Road seems like a period piece precursor to the movie, American Beauty in terms of its suburban setting and overall themes of dissatisfaction of life and a yearning for change.
Similar to his other movies, Mendes enlists Thomas Newman, my favorite movie composer, to conduct the powerful and moving score to the film. The cinematography also draws you in especially in the penultimate moments where you see Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) running frantically out of remorse down Revolutionary Road after the climax of the movie. The movie’s title doesn’t give the audience too much detail on what it could be about or what the film focuses on. It is enough, however, to pique your curiosity, especially with the two leading actors involved and the film does not disappoint in this aspect. Awarded with both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, Revolutionary Road was a critical success even though it didn’t really light up the box office when it was released.
Unbeknownst to most, the film Revolutionary Road was based off of the novel by Richard Yates of the same name. While the book was released in 1961, Yates wrote it as a referendum on the conformity of the 1950s and how families across America were settling down in suburbs that were safe and secure yet did not leave much to the imagination. It’s a great work of fiction and the movie Revolutionary Road sticks to the material quite well.
Like most couples of that age, Frank and April Wheeler meet at a friend’s party in 1948. Frank is a longshoreman and a former soldier during World War II while April is an aspiring actress when they first get to know each other. Frank’s father worked for 20 years for a sales company known as Knox Machines and sees himself in the same position unless he can think of something else. Frank is someone who is bored by the monotony of his work and desires to do something bigger with his life. Ironically, the less he cares about his sales job, the more the bosses like what he’s been doing.
Frank falls in love with April and they marry each other. The courtship and how well they actually knew each other before marrying is not covered in the film but it’s clear that they were both young when they married. The audience is left to infer that they really didn’t know each other all that well or what they expected out of their lives. After they get married, it is mentioned that April is pregnant with the couple's first child. Because of the cheapness of land and the need for more space, like many other American couples in the 1950s, the Wheelers move to 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.
When April and Frank move in to Revolutionary Road, they are first welcomed by the realtor, Helen Givings (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband, Howard Givings. The new couple is deemed to be perfect for this idyllic suburban town by the Givings even though their son, John (Michael Shannon), is unhappy with the way the Wheelers are living with each other. Lacking an understanding of normal social cues, John rants about the ‘hopeless emptiness’ of suburban living and questions the soundness of their marriage in front of them.
While the audience can see John Givings as initially crazy, as the film goes on, he actually starts to make the most sense out of anyone in the film. To the Wheelers, their other neighbors, the Campbells, are what they would aspire to be as the perfect suburban couple. They are a friendly couple, content with their lives, and seemingly in love with each other. However, as we go through the film, we realize that each couple, the Wheelers, the Givings, and even the Campbells, are putting on a mask.
Out of the three couples in this film, we do spend the most time with the Wheelers who, it seems, were never truly meant for each other. They may have connected initially but they seem to us two very different people. April is very footloose, wanting to enjoy life and experience the world, while Frank is content with who he is, what his career will be, and his contentedness with being a father. They are also not quite settled in their livelihoods when we meet them, as April is struggling to gain traction as an actress and Frank is bored stiff at his sales job. Instead of supporting each other through the tough times, it remains a point of contention that either person hasn’t succeeded as much as they would like. While it seems that they are both not content with living in the suburbs or being married, they also have their two children to think about.
Because they are married and have children, it’s nearly impossible for them to uproot their lives as April suggests. A running theme throughout the film is their desire to move elsewhere, including Paris, which April endorses immediately, yet Frank sees as being unrealistic. When you have people who depend on you, bills to pay, and jobs that get in the way, it’s hard to move anywhere, including overseas. Their collective boredom at living in the suburbs starts to manifest itself elsewhere as they start to get bored with each other by seeking out extramarital affairs, excessive drinking, smoking, etc. to dull their pain. Instead of trying to work out their marriage problems or seek ways to better their lives separately, they drag each other through the mud with shouting matches and other more extreme actions.
While Paris is an escape for the two of them from their jobs, their repetitive jobs, and their monotonous suburban lifestyle, it’s clearer that they want to escape and get away from each other. As John Lennon famously stated, “Life is while happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Frank and April Wheeler never truly accept that their lives are not truly their own and they do have to make compromises when it comes to money, children, lifestyle, etc. When they plan to actually move to Paris, April gets pregnant again and Frank is offered a lucrative promotion at his sales job. Instead of accepting their new reality together, they lash out at each other and cause a lot of pain and suffering in the process.
You can see from the film that Frank and April Wheeler were not compatible people in terms of their relationship or marriage. As April bluntly opines to Frank during one of their fights, “You were just some guy that made me laugh at a party once.” It becomes clear to the audience that they would be happier living separate lives with Frank living as a successful salesman at his father’s former company in New York City while April tries to make it on her own as an actress working in Paris or Los Angeles. Both of them are not cut out for the married, suburban lifestyle but they are also equally not cut out for each other. They can use the suburbs, their children, their job situations as excuses but at the heart of the issue is their flawed relationship.
American society in the 1950s helped to put a lot of pressure on young couples like the Wheelers to get married, have children, and then move to the suburbs where it’s safe and secure. However, it’s clear that this type of lifestyle is not for everyone. Some people are not meant to be married or to have children. Others are meant to live in cities or travel for their work. I can imagine that the cultural attitude in the 1950s shunned this kind of critical thinking and encouraged a more conformist lifestyle that stifled people’s personal hopes, wants, and ambitions. You could say that the following decade, the 1960s, changed American life forever in its expectations of people and how they could and should live their lives.
In closing, this film is a realistic and sobering look at how relationships and marriages can fail sometimes and that it can be very painful to live a life that’s not in line with your personal wants and needs.