This article was first published on Culturewatch.org. © Tony Watkins, 2010
With Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes returns to the territory of his Oscar-winning film, American Beauty. Ten years after that film explored the dissatisfaction, emptiness and desperation behind suburbia’s tranquil facade, Mendes is once more giving us a window into the shallow lives of those who inhabit it. Revolutionary Road, set in 1955, is an adaptation of the landmark 1961 novel by Richard Yates, but clearly the themes resonate with Mendes. The focus in this story is on marriage rather than an individual, as in American Beauty, but there is the same longing for excitement, freedom and fulfilment.
Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) see themselves as different, special and not really belonging in their suburban environment. Having met at a party and married, they bought a house on Revolutionary Road because April was expecting their first child. At first the house seemed charming and full of character, but the life they end up leading is not what they had wanted. When Frank first met April, they both dreamed of being more than average suburbanites. She was studying to be an actress, but it is soon clear that this was not a road to success for her, and by the time-frame of the film she is a housewife. Frank never really knew what he wanted to do, and now he commutes to New York city each day, heading for a fifteenth floor office where he struggles to find satisfaction in his work as a salesman for Knox business machines. Both of them find this life dreary, repetitive and enervating. It is a life they drifted into by default, and they long for more. They look down on their neighbours and colleagues as being people who are unable to see beyond the boundaries of their drab little lives.
On the way home after a disastrous play one evening, Frank tries to reassure April, but she pushes him away and a furious row develops. The next day proves to be a watershed in their lives. Frank, feeling frustrated in his marriage, ends up in bed with a young woman from the typing pool. It’s one of many ways in which Frank seems to need to prove his manhood, and hence also his specialness. Maureen (Zoë Kazan) affirms him in just the ways he feels he needs, but this is the point of brief liaison; it’s not about her at all. Meanwhile, back at home amid the daily tedium of cleaning and cooking, April recalls the optimism and idealism with which they began their relationship, and the way she had viewed Frank as intelligent, charming and exciting. In particular, she remembers Frank telling her what an exciting place Paris is. It’s the only place, in Frank’s experience where people are really alive, and he would love to return there. ‘All I know, April,’ he explains, ‘is I want to feel things; really feel them.’ It sounded so uplifting and inspiring, and April longs so badly to recover that idealism. By the time Frank returns from work, the solution has become obvious to April. They should leave suburbia and move to Paris. She can work as a secretary at one of the government agencies, and he can take time to discover himself and what he really wants in life.
Frank is reluctant at first. ‘It’s unrealistic,’ he protests. ‘This is unrealistic,’ counters April. ‘Our whole existence here is based on this premise that we’re special, that we’re above all this . . . and we’ve bought into the same things as everyone else.’ Frank admits that he has no particular talent, but April thinks this is beside the point: ‘It’s what you are that’s being stifled. It’s what you are that’s being denied and denied in this kind of life.’ Frank comes round to the idea. His motivation seems to be to please April, or perhaps out of guilt over spending the afternoon with Maureen. When they announce the plan to their neighbours Shep and Milly (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), they are incredulous. ‘What for?’ asks Milly. To them, and everyone else, the idea seems immature, ill-thought out and futile. Ironically, it seems that people like Shep and Milly, and Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) the real estate agent, already see Frank and April as cool and somewhat glamourous, and yet the Wheelers see themselves as having compromised their idealism to conformism.
The one person who sees right through the middle-class conventionality is Helen Givings’s son, John (Michael Shannon). He had been a mathematician, but is now a psychiatric patient (the overworked idea of the ‘madman’ being the only one who can see the truth clearly, here drawing explicitly on the idea that madness is a rational response to an irrational world). When Helen and her husband (Richard Easton) bring John to visit the Wheelers, he is quick to accuse Frank of doing a job he hates in order to be able to ‘play house’. Frank, of course, agrees with John’s evaluation of suburban life. John’s respect for the Wheelers grows further when Frank admits that they are running away from the ‘hopelessness and emptiness of life.’ ‘Now you’ve said it,’ John says. ‘Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.’
The trouble is that Frank doesn’t really have much in the way of guts, though April has plenty. He has ended up working in the same company as his father had done because he was too afraid of failing to try anything. He tries to mollify April by saying nice things, because he’s too afraid to be honest. He goes along with her Paris plan because he’s too afraid to resist, but in fact he wants to stay put. He talks a good game of youthful idealism, but he loves the comfortable, conformist life he leads. The cracks begin to appear when he inadvertently wins the favour of the boss, Bart Pollack, and is offered a new post with much more money. And then April finds that she is pregnant. When she realises that Frank wants the new job rather than the chance of a new start, she is furious. ‘I have enough backbone not to walk away from my responsibilities,’ he shouts, but April yells back, ‘It takes backbone to do what you want.’
Now the tension between Frank and April is clear. April is desperate to break free, regardless of what price she must pay to do so, whereas Frank will make any compromise in order to hang on to his safe existence. Screenwriter Justin Haythe remarks that, ‘Paris becomes this grand symbol of courage and potential. At heart I believe it is really about this question: if you get the chance to try to be the person you always wanted to be, what will it expose about who you really are?’
This is a much more profound story than merely an attack on suburbia. Indeed, that’s not how Richard Yates saw Revolutionary Road:
The book was widely read as an anti-suburban novel and that disappointed me . . . I think I meant it more as an indictment . . . of a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs - a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price . . . I meant to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the 50s.
Justin Haythe agrees, saying, ‘I think it's a much vaster story about human frailty and longing.’ Frank and April are driven by dissatisfaction and longing for something more. April explains to Shep at one point:
I just wanted to live again. For years we shared this secret, that we would be wonderful in the world. I didn’t exactly know how, but just the possibility kept me hoping. How pathetic is that? . . . I saw a whole other future. I can’t stop seeing it. I can’t leave; I can’t stay. I’m no use to anyone.
The problem is more fundamental than either April or Frank realise. The problem is not the suburban lifestyle itself, with the good job and the nice house, but the complacency. They are right to see that conformity and buying into the consumerist dream is woefully inadequate. Life shouldn’t be characterised by emptiness and hopelessness. There should be something which brings fulfilment. There should be a sense of freedom, rather than constriction. But they are mistaken to think that Paris has any more answers than Darien, Connecticut. Yes, they might find some measure of fulfilment, in that a new place and space to think and reflect might give them the chance to discover what they want to do. But that doesn’t answer the question of who they really are. When April says to Frank, ‘It’s who you are that’s being stifled,’ she’s exactly right, in that this is the central issue, but she’s wrong in that it is not their suburban environment which is doing the stifling. They are stifling and denying themselves by looking to this world, whether location, circumstances or material comforts, for true significance.
The Christian perspective on this problem is that this world inevitably fails to deliver because we were made primarily for a connection with a spiritual dimension beyond it: we were made for a relationship with God. John Givings does seem to be right when he remarks that many people are aware of the emptiness of life, but that they repress the sense of hopelessness. It’s too unpalatable to admit to, while it’s not too hard to mask the sense of emptiness by filling our lives with activity or with things. Frank and April see the problem all too clearly, but while Frank backs away from it, April plunges headlong into the wrong solution, and makes matters far worse. The answer to both the emptiness and the hopelessness is found only in a relationship with God through his Son, Jesus Christ. It is only here that we discover who we really are, and can find forgiveness for those aspects of our nature which plunge us headlong into conflict with others, ourselves and God himself. It is here that we find the peace for which we, like Frank and April, so desperately crave.