Saturday, January 03, 2009

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon
Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 119 min.
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Drama

        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.

7 comments:

srikanth said...

"pain ought to be felt, not expressed" - fantastic.

I always have admired diCaprio's work in Aviator, but have not seen many films after that. But your para is so convincing that I will remain skeptical in my next diCaprio movie

man in the iron mask said...

Hail Christian Bale. Hail Naomi Watts. Hail Isabelle Huppert. Hail Robert De Niro. Hail Benicio Del Toro.

I considered him a decent actor too, and I still consider him one. But there was a certain weakness in him that I couldn't quite pin down. And I saw Revolutionary Road, and all his performances sort of flashed in front of me.

Satish Naidu

srikanth said...

Just saw the film and read your review again...

Yes there is a clear difference between the lead performances. Ms. Winslet has a natural fatigue as if carrying over from Finding Neverland. Leo on the other hand is always seen grinding his teeth and with his nerves popping out of the forehead. BUt you have to excuse him. I feel that is his "style" of acting. I mean, you don't see Hanks without the constipated look do you? But he is one talented guy... The raised brows of Brando, the droopy eyes of Penn, and the piercing ones of Eastwood. I guess you have to give it to Leo.

And I agree with the Shannon part. Mendes, like American Beauty, verbalizes what he feels should not go over the audience's head in order to drench them with their own tears. And on some thought, don't you think Leo would have shined in that role too? ::)

Again, Mendes cuts to the drama (you mentioned staging). Come on, you are filming urban boredom here. And everything seems to be 'happening" here. There is no "dead time" at all. I mean, he gets snubbed, he sleeps around, change of plans, tension... I get the reasons for the conflict. BUt it has to evolve organically. Perhaps Mendes wanted to Americanize Antonioni

And the final scene left me puzzled too. Sort of made it a horror story with the haunted house thing. But as a whole, it was a pretty good watch. One of the better films this year I guess...


P.S. Don't you think there was something flawed in the art work. I mean, you talk about the computer age - the one after Beatles and Clockwork Orange - and you see men with coats and hats walking around. Kind of anachronistic...

man in the iron mask said...

I would seek pardon here, beforehand, lest your wrath unleashes itself upon me.

The thing is I have never thought Penn has any exceptional kind of actor. He is good, but he is always ‘acting’, you know, like I’m aware what he is trying to be. He always seems to lend just that extra amount of expression/histrionic that breaks the illusion. I have never felt the aura that many confer upon him. For example 21 Grams, whose weakest link for me was Penn amongst those heavyweights. Del Toro, now here’s an astounding actor.

Ditto with Brando, whose earlier performances were surely mighty, but later on were terribly phony. Don Corleone was of course good, but I have always believed Al Pacino’s was the vastly better performance, and an even deeper character. I have always, always been influenced by Pacino. I see Last Tango in Paris, another very good performance from Brando, but when he speaks to his wife’s dead body, I see a sleight of hand rather than honesty. You see, this was a guy who was supposed to be a method actor.

But Eastwood? Nooooooooooo. He is much more than an actor. He is the greatest specimen alive. Of the male species I mean. I can hardly ever stop myself from worshipping him. Those squint eyes. Ah. What a legend. My brain often works like a little town in a western where Batman and Eastwood are squaring off. Can there ever be another Eastwood? For that matter, will there ever be another Batman? Are they both the same?
HALT, geek, HALT.
I do.
Leo, on the other hand seems more from-the-heart, but he seems to be limited. I’m not sure he is cut out for supporting roles. Look what happened to him in Gangs of New York. He was caught clueless. There was a confused look on his face throughout. Still that pain in his eyes and those nerves of his struggling to break free never lose him.

And what you say about boredom is exactly true. A very true and insightful observation. You would love this Chinese film Night Train, which shows boredom as it is supposed to be. A hollow empty feeling.

The anachronism sure is puzzling. For a while I thought this was supposed to be Road to Perdition II. But I guess it was 50s, so I don’t know. They were similar dresses in the mob room in The Godfather and that was supposed to be 54 too. But then, Mendes always heightens the period thing. I don’t mind that necessarily and often this kind of a visual cliché makes for a pretty imagery. Banal, yes, but pretty.

Satish Naidu

Srikanth said...

Ah atleast, we concur on Eastwood. Thank god we have The old bloke does it again in Gran Torino.

May be Penn and Brando are not method actors after all. May be they are from The System (is it?) where tehy deliberately try to maintain a distance fromt the character...

!Teq-uila Del Zapata said...

well as you said rightly,
Di carprio with exception of Aviator is pushing very hard to act well. In this one, he is trying to be like Jack Nicholson, which he cannot become.
Kate ion other hand is quite at ease, i like her here after finding neverland.

Atrisa said...

You literally stole my words with the power struggle part. I'm no expert on relationships but the infidelity definitely was about feeling more powerful and in-control. In April's case, I thought it was merely any sort of release that she was desperate for.

Actually now that I think about it, you are kind of right about John coming in and putting his two cents a little unnecessary, even though I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, especially his last words when he says "I'm glad I'm not that child"

Even though the last argument seemed a bit rehearsed I thought the two pulled it off quite marvelously. At the end of it I wanted to get up on my feet and applaud. I'm no one to say whether Leo fits the bill or not but I think he leverages his forte. As for Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes is lucky to have her as his wife ;)

Say what you, I absolutely enjoyed the movie.