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REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Kathy Bates
Director: Sam Mendes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: June 2, 2009

“We’re gonna be okay. I promise.”

“I hope so, Frank. I really hope so.”

Film ****

More than a decade ago, a tiny little movie about a romance aboard a doomed ship made box office history and turned its two young leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, into overnight sensations. We all knew their careers would only get better in the years to come, except they got greater. However, I seriously doubt anyone could’ve predicted the two would reunite in a dark film about suburban married life from the director of American Beauty.

Revolutionary Road is, above all else, the anti-Titanic. If you ask me, I find it to be a bold and brilliant choice on behalf of DiCaprio and Winslet to make a film that is one hundred percent in the opposite direction of a movie that everyone immediately associates with them as an on-screen couple, not to mention one so steeped in our culture. It’s as if they chose this project as a way of intentionally pulling the rug out from everyone who wanted to see them reunited for a romance of Titanic proportions.

But beyond the irony, this is a powerful and poignant cinematic accomplishment with such a potent effect, it will be hard to shake it from your memory. But be forewarned; this is anything but a happy movie experience. Not since Closer has a single film been more raw and, at the same time, discomforting in its depiction of a relationship falling apart.

The opening of the film brilliantly juxtaposes a scene of ultimate happiness with a moment that is completely the opposite. We first see Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) meet at a party, and it feels like a mutual case of love at first sight. They strike up a lively conversation and share a romantic dance.

Cut to several years later, as Frank and April, now married, are driving home following the performance of a play she was in. April is none too happy about her acting abilities, and what begins with Frank trying to comfort her about the issue suddenly erupts into a heated argument on the side of the road. By the end of this intense exchange of words, they can’t even look at one another.

How did things get to this point? Every couple has problems to deal with at some point in a relationship, but Frank and April’s problems have soared way past the boiling point. How could their romantic first encounter lead to such a sour marriage?

It may lie within the notion that Frank and April went from being carefree dreamers to becoming a married couple and giving into the suburban lifestyle. In other words, whatever dreams they had in the pre-marital stage had to be sacrificed in order to fulfill the expectations of the typical suburban couple. And they also happen to be residing in Connecticut, which appears to be suburbia high maintenance.

Or it could be the plain and simple fact that Frank and April got in way over their heads when they decided to exchange vows. It could serve as an illustration that just because you meet someone and you have the most incredible first date in the history of incredible first dates, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should elevate to marriage right away. It’s all too clear that they rushed into things a little too quickly.

But a small glimmer of hope eventually presents itself. April proposes that they move to Paris and start a new life. She remembers Frank telling her early in their relationship that he had been there once and it was unlike any place he’d ever been to, and that he wanted to go the first chance he got.

And for a while, it looks like this strategy to start over their lives may just go into effect. In a crucial scene, Frank and April explain their decision to an unlikely fellow named John (Michael Shannon), the slightly mentally ill son of a family friend. Of all the people they’ve told about their move to Paris, he is the most understanding of why they have made this decision.

However, Frank starts to have doubts about the plan, which thus causes the marriage to spiral into a whole other area of discomfort. He’s presented with a promotion at work, which will better benefit the family. April finds it to be a weak act on his part.

And I won’t go any further in detail, although given the nature of the film it is somewhat easy to see that things won’t end on the happiest of notes. The bottom line is this; Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe have done an outstanding job, cinematic wise, in adapting the novel by Richard Yates. I haven’t read it but, from what I’ve heard, this is quite a faithful adaptation.

DiCaprio and Winslet are close friends in real life, which is why you can’t help but be stunned by the lengths they go to make the most of the countless heated exchanges they have. The kinds of things you don’t want to ever hear a married couple say to each other are uttered here on many occasions, and you can basically hear a pin drop at the end of every intense exchange. DiCaprio truly got the shaft in the Best Actor category and though I haven’t seen The Reader yet, I really think Kate should’ve won for this one, especially since she won the Golden Globe for this performance.

And with only two scenes in the entire film, Michael Shannon’s Oscar nominated supporting turn is flat out brilliant. The second scene he has is the most pivotal, where he reacts to news that completely contradicts something he was told earlier, at which point he lets Frank and April have it with sheer brutal honesty. A lot has to be said for any actor who can command attention for such a brief period of screen time and leave such a lasting effect on the audience, which is exactly what Shannon does.

It was also great to see the film receive Oscar nods for art direction and costume design, though it never really stood a chance against films like The Duchess and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Many reviews seem to criticize the score by Thomas Newman (who’s scored every film of Mendes’) as overbearing but I found it to be powerfully effective. Both it and the cinematography from Roger Deakins were deserving of Oscar nods (coincidentally, Deakins wound up getting nominated for his work on The Reader).

Much of the film’s potency comes from the way in which Mendes turns the tables on our perception of a 1950s lifestyle. It was a period that was seen as a cleaner and wholesome time for the American family, but one look at Frank and April and we suddenly realize that not every married couple was clean or wholesome. Just like L.A. Confidential did for the 40s, and the TV series Mad Men does for the 60s, this film boldly presents a darker side of the decade in between.

Revolutionary Road is another filmmaking triumph from Sam Mendes. It’s a film that definitely pulls no punches in how it straps the audience in for an emotionally draining look at the damaging effects of a rocky marriage on a road of broken dreams. The powerful acting, brave script and breathtaking production all blend to make this one truly unforgettable motion picture.

Video ****

Because I’m so accustomed these days to the high def format, it’s all too easy for me to point out shortcomings on a standard DVD release. However, this anamorphic picture on this Paramount release is nothing short of amazing! Roger Deakins effective cinematography paints strong individual shots that are made even more powerful in this presentation. Picture clearness, colors and overall detail are all of pure fantastic quality.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix is most effective in delivering the most striking quality of the film, which is the dialogue. The overall feeling of discomfort during the numerous fighting between DiCaprio and Winslet is conveyed in a most powerful and effective manner. There isn’t a single false beat in the delivery of each and every word of the film. Thomas Newman’s haunting score is also given a fantastic treatment, and plays through the channels terrifically.

Features ***

We get three primary features, but all are exceedingly well done. There’s a commentary with director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe, which is tremendously informative as you’d expect, in addition to Deleted Scenes with optional director and writer commentary, and a half hour making of featurette titled “Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road”.

Summary:

Though it might be a little too much for sensitive viewers to stomach, Revolutionary Road is a powerful piece of filmmaking that should be given a chance by all. I dare anyone not to be effected in some form by its final frame. One of the truly best films of 2009!

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