Saturday, January 03, 2009
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon
Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 119 min.
I would be of no help concerning matters of the America of 1950s, the era which brought this famous novel out of Richard Yates, but I sure could dare to claim that there isn’t much to separate the soul that throbbed within it from the sprawling urban unrest that is seemingly settling amongst us right here right now. After all, the fundamental framework is much the same – a man married to a woman in a rather settled life that has seemingly met its desired objective.
Mr. Mendes’ Revolutionary Road manages to land a check against almost every cliché that the movies have supplied to me as far as the framework is concerned – an ocean of fedoras heading for work, overtly artificial women outfaking each other, the usual dream of someone wanting to be an artist of some kind but being terrible at it, the seeming mediocrity of suburban life –, but does a rather fair and often unsettling examination of the doomed marriage of a young couple. The film doesn’t portray the Wheelers, Frank (Mr. DiCaprio) and April (Ms. Winslet), dreamers in the traditional sense. You see, in reality many of the so-called dreamers are nothing more than meandering hearts between the hallways of an idea they have of their dreams on one end, and the commonly accepted practicalities of life on the other. To most of them, it is only the reality kicking in, when it is finally sinking in that this is all there is to their lives. It is pretty vacant all around, and a direct result of wanting to eat the cake and have it to.
Frank and April are such a couple. He believes all he needs is a dream, and she believes she already has a dream. It is sort of a safety shell, a cocoon to keep reassuring themselves into feeling special, feeling different from everything that’s around them. He obviously looks down upon his present job, believing he was cut out for better things in life, and she too. She is a housewife, and a trained actress who just isn’t good enough but doesn’t want to accept it. This kinda situation must have a lot of lava brewing underneath, and it occasionally causes a minor eruption of tempers. Such as the one after a disastrous staging of a play, where the consensus is April was awful, and she knows that verdict. He tries to talk to her, be friendly to her, but she resists. She doesn’t want to let the failure go, and he doesn’t want to accept that she is resisting him, her man, her husband. Anything, you see, to let the void fill. He gets up in the morning and goes to work depressed that his manhood has been challenged again, and he bangs a woman from office. Maybe to prove something, and maybe only to himself. She meanwhile gets this fancy idea that they should break free from all that is keeping them here, and move to Paris for good. So that he could finally realize what he wants from life, and do something he loves. She convinces him when he returns home that night. The problem is they might be too timid to crack open that safety shell they have each created for themselves to drift through their lives.
Now, there’re always power games. There always will be. In any relationship. Both in good times and bad times. It is a little playfield where words are carefully selected (like a diplomatic) during the good times, and carefully selected (to inflict maximum possible insult) during the bad times. Revolutionary Road quite adeptly portrays this predicament and during both the times. The great tragedy is that the salesman’s intention seems to be to hurt her, but the housewife with all her honesty is only about her. She is plain speaking, he is of the constructing kind. There always is one of the latter in every coupling. She was too, maybe she still is, and when she sells him the Paris idea the film botches up what could have been a sequence of great irony.
And there’re great many botches of that sort. For one, the cause of film’s greatest strength is also the cause behind its second biggest weakness. It is the Michael Shannon character whose character’s very existence feels like an excuse to provide the services of the psychological insight into what’s happening in the Wheeler household. He arrives twice, and delivers explanations on both occasions, spoiling the fun we’re having exploring it all for ourselves. He’s like a spoiler to a thriller, but the film includes him and tries to be smart about it anyway. It is a brilliant tour de force from Shannon, something worthy of year-end nominations, and it is simply the film’s biggest joy watching him act. This is a brilliant actor here, someone who’s more than worthy to be the heir to the late Ledger’s empty throne. As in, being Nolan’s choice for a villain or something whenever there will be a sequel, if there will be. He is an actor of intense honesty, of monstrous power but the problem is that doesn’t amount to anything other than a huge structural flaw in a film like Revolutionary Road. I mean, if his services were provided to gain insight into the brains of a brilliant psychopath, I would understand. But why bother explaining to us something that is part of the common life. I remember Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and how it left everything for us to explore.
There’s another, the big one, and it is the sort of weakness that runs at absolute odds with the film for its complete course. That would be Sam Mendes, whose cold and distant third-person non-judgmental aesthetics lend the film a touch of grace that ought not to be there. See, a broken marriage is all about brute honesty, and even in its fakery it is about something personal. Like those household sequences from Raging Bull, which feel organic, flesh and blood, spontaneous. Here, everything feels terribly artificial, and once again Mr. Mendes’ stage aesthetics betray him. Raging Bull felt as if Martin Scorsese was digging up something from deep within, something very personal. The great New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis recognizes the same weakness, and she mentions in her review how furiously intimate the Yates novel is. I haven’t read the book, but would like to take her word, and I believe that maybe the only way this subject could be explored. Mr. Mendes’ film instead feels preordained. As part of a script.
Not that a great film cannot be made out of something preordained. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon comes to mind, but unlike that film, Mr. Mendes never sets out to convey any degree of inevitability to the proceedings. He is engrossing us, and with all his grace, he is pulling us in to wonder what would happen. That is a flaw, even if it is engrossing, and it pulls the film down to mediocrity. There’s a sense of staging, a sense of setting, to every sequence, every clash between the Wheelers. Every line uttered, right down to the cursing F-word, feels scripted and timed and uttered in a rehearsed way.
But of course, the entire blame ought not to rest on Mr. Mendes. There’s Mr. Caprio whose performance is astonishingly bad, not because he’s a bad actor but because he is a terribly limited one and the absolute the wrong choice. See, a Caprio performance is never about depth, is never about conveying any degree of inner conflict with a sense of reality. It only works in amplified histrionics, where the general idea is to shriek at the top of his voice and furrow his eyebrows, and somehow bring himself to almost cry at the slightest pretext. Many of his best performances come in films which themselves amplified in tone (The Aviator). Pain for him seems to be limited to crying, or a crying-like expression. His acting, and this is something I have realized over his last few performances, are always like a high tensile wire stretched thin to its limit. He is always about his arms, and his screams, and his performances in such a situation might suit more on stage than on screen. See, this is a sincere actor we have here, and often a very effective one but someone who could never be even remotely natural. And for a filmmaker like Mendes whose filmmaking subconsciously seeks actors who convey depth, he is the wrong choice. You pick any scene Mr. Caprio is in, and you see the same procedure being employed by him, and much like any of his other characters, there is always that same emotional destination they reach at the end of a dramatic scene.
Ms. Winslet is terrific, she is cold and warm and artificial and honest and devastating, all at the same time. She is often hampered by stagy dialogs, but it is her mere presence that convey much of the film’s pain. She understands, unlike Mr. Caprio, that pain ought to be felt, not expressed. That is when the audience starts feeling too. The final scene between their characters down at the breakfast table sort of condenses the different conflicting tones (Mr. Mendes and Ms. Winslet versus Mr. Caprio). It is a quite a brilliant one, where the director and actress seem to be in unison when speaking like HAL from 2001. The actor seems to be left out, along with us, and in a unique way it captures the predicament of the household. The hopeless romantic who believes it will always work out struggling against a film which knows it wouldn’t, and the dejected romantic locked in here who believes it wouldn’t either. There’s artifice, coldness, and claustrophobia all seeping in.
Two questions bother me. Where are the kids during the whole movie? They make an appearance when the script needs them to, and on all other occasions it seems as if there aren’t even any kids in the household. It is a terrible problem, because if not the kids physically, at least their presence ought to be felt by us. And the other question is the way the film frames a new couple hopelessly in romance, probably walking into the same house as the Wheelers. I look at the ending and ask myself is that right. The film deems it as if it is an epidemic, an irreversible reaction. I have my answers but would want you have yours too.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 1:24 PM