The Oscar voters got it wrong. Can I have a recount? It’s no wonder the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voting members steered clear of Revolutionary Road. It’s clearly far too bleak, depressing, and challenging for them to acknowledge. This film is easily the most dark and demanding I have seen this year. It is not an easy-going movie experience but those both brave and patient enough to accept the challenge will be rewarded with a film of great complexity and more than only one performance that is worthy of Oscar discussion, Academy be damned. In this economy, it’s understandable people don’t want to see this film. Things are bad enough. We don’t want our entertainment dollar to be spent on something that is going to bring us down emotionally. But if you are up to the task, with the right frame of mind, it can be a rich experience. You just have to go in with the Surgeon General’s Warning (and there is a lot of smoking in the film, to boot!), emotional clashes lie ahead.
Based on the Richard Yates novel, Road is primarily set in the 50′s, a story about a couple looking to fulfill their ambitions within the structure of their relationship and a developing American society. Views are questioned, aspirations are shattered, dreams are dashed. After two kids, years of marriage, and a fruitless job for Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio), his domesticated wife April (Kate Winslet), desperately propositions him with the opportunity of fulfilling their youthful vision of living in Paris. The philandering Frank reluctantly agrees to uproot his family and find his true calling. In essence though, it is April, who may be the schemer here. Winslet plays a woman almost as troubled as Kathy Bates’ (another co-star here) Annie Wilkes in Misery.
As moods swing for the better in the short term, eventually like The Roots sang, “things fall apart.” A meddlesome neighbor with a psychopathic son (Bates as Helen Givings), affairs o’ plenty, an unexpected job opportunity, and another major bomb, keep matters tense. Excruciatingly so, at times. Situations fraught with heated words, exchanges of empty stares, more heartache ensues here than on Kanye West’s latest album, as tension builds to a crescendo. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.
DiCaprio proves unequivocally that he is amongst Hollywood’s finest actors working today and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been recognized for this film. Winslet does her best to keep up with him, but as talented as she is, the task is nearly impossible. Leo lights the screen ablaze pouring his heart and soul into this grand performance. You hurt for him. He becomes Frank Wheeler in a role that should have catapulted him into the discussion with Mickey Rourke as the year’s greatest achievement in acting. It’s one for the ages that will get better through the years.
In addition to the leads, Michael Shannon ignites his scenes with crucial and urgent acting that was rightfully recognized with a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this year’s Oscars. His mentally deranged John Givings ends up being the most insightful antagonist in the film. Opponents sometimes complain that playing mentally inept is an easy way out for actors, but in this case I simply don’t agree. Shannon displays a deep uneasiness in the mood swings of his vocally vicious tyrant.
While Director Sam Mendes imbues the film with his usual deft eye, the film is not flawless. It’s like his Oscar-winning film American Beauty, if raging from being denied another dose of steroids. There are some unneeded hiccups (a telegraphed affair gone awry, semi-empty scenes with Frank’s co-workers) along the way. But as the film winds down with Howard Givings turning down his hearing aid on his chatter-box wife, we are so spent that we are glad he does. Sometimes happiness remains an elusive destination, one certainly not easily found on Revolutionary Road.