Recently, I had the absolute privilege of watching Sam Mendes’ latest work “Revolutionary Road.” Arguably his most mature work to date, it is embellished with superlative performances by Michael Shannon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Coming together after over 10 years after the unforgettable (for better or for worse) Titanic, it is a delight to watch the two actors in roles which are a far cry from their Jack & Rose act. Seeing them one realises how much both have grown as actors over the years. 2008 was clearly a great year for Kate Winslet with her stunning performances in “The Reader” and this one. She is unarguably the best female actor of her generation. Here, she is at her boldest best and delivers an unrestrained and powerful performance.
Coming to the movie itself, while it starts off slow and it takes a while for the viewer to get involved or really care, Sam Mendes deserves kudos for delivering a movie that is, ultimately, gut wrenching in its emotional impact. Do not, even for a second expect the idyllic world of “Happy Days” or even the comic relief or the optimism Mendes’ “American Beauty.” Revolutionary Road is a raw, painful and stark portrait of the realities of a suburban couple in the US in the 1950s. The adaptation of the John Yates novel is well written, wonderfully shot and extremely well enacted. The bright, colourful and picturesque frames are juxtaposed well with the darkness of its characters and their tale. The characters are very well developed over the two hours of runtime and the conclusion of the movie left me numb for the longest time.
However, I quickly found myself drawing comparisons to the movies which were actually made in the 1950s on similar issues. Particularly, I was increasingly drawing parallels between “Revolutionary Road” and Nicholas Ray’s iconic “Rebel without a Cause,” a culturally significant film that raised more questions than it answered. While “Rebel without a Cause” presented the problem, it could not (or did not) explain or rationalise it, let alone provide an answer or solution. However, “Revolutionary Road” owing to, I think, its retrospective look at the 1950s, displays a greater sense of awareness of the problems of life in the American suburbs then. It captures the sexism and the frustrations of the time and its people. Its sense of self-awareness is perhaps best embodied in the character of Michael Shannon who understands more than he lets on. No one wants to listen to him because no one wants to know the truth. In that sense, his character is somewhat similar to that of James Dean who embodied the confusion of “Rebel without a Cause.” He saw things: the peer pressure in school, the messy relations at home, but he didn’t understand how and why. Moreover, no one helped him understand and that drove him nuts. Here, it’s Michael Shannon’s character’s willingness to speak out the truth and the repression that is forced upon him that makes him unstable. The two characters are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. However, they both embody the central point that the movies are trying to make. The self-awareness of “Revolutionary Road” is inevitable. However, Sam Mendes’ confident direction and an author-backed script help avoid reducing this self-awareness to a set of clichés.
Overall, “Revolutionary Road” is a deceptively quiet little film that is powerful and resonates for a long time after it’s over.