Blu-ray Review: Revolutionary Road (2008)

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Much to the dismay of audiences and critics alike, it's become "trendy" -- especially during autumn and winter-- to dish up the most unspeakably bleak cinematic portraits imaginable in the quest for award-winning glory via increasingly pretentious and alienating works of over-the-top dysfunctional devastation.

You know the type-- they're films my friend, colleague and local critic Colin Boyd calls "the Laura Linney" in the tradition of movies such as Smart People, Margot at the Wedding, The Savages, Snow Angels, The Squid and the Whale, and The Tracey Fragments that have become so popular (at least with the people making them) that at least a dozen of these roll into theatres every single year.

And given some of the reviews that circulated last December upon the release of Oscar winning director Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road some of which likened it to anguish and torture, needless to say-- having just taken in one too many dark works all clamoring for Oscar-- I skipped the press screening and waited for disc.

Yet, although the film--which is based on Richard Yates' classic National Book Award nominated 1961 American novel-- journeys headfirst without a map over the course of two hours in a figurative suburban war zone filled with emotional landmines until it arrives at its heartbreaking destination guaranteed to leave you shell-shocked, I must say I was completely engrossed throughout the entire experience.

Fittingly, as revealed in the DreamWorks, BBC Films, and Paramount Vantage Blu-ray's behind-the-scenes featurette, "Lives of Quiet Desperation: The Making of Revolutionary Road," the film was described as "passion project" for Kate Winslet who is no stranger to incisive explorations into the darkest aspects of male-female romantic relationships in her Academy Award nominated turns in films such as Little Children and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

And while the film is one you must prepare yourself to watch and moreover one that could be quite a dangerous instigator to provoke discontented couples into arguments, it's also one of the most thought-provoking, proactive, painful, yet satisfyingly three dimensional, bizarrely relatable, and articulate works crafted in 2008.

Incredibly brave-- at first the movie begins as though it's a big-budget version of an episode of Matthew Weiner's AMC award-winning original series Mad Men-- yet one set a decade earlier as we encounter the seemingly picture-perfect young couple April (Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) whom we realize are anything but happy with their lot in life.

Having met at a party when Frank made the aspiring actress April laugh and enchanted her with his tales of being in Paris (albeit in the war), the couple's fire and ice relationship runs as manic and depressive as the moods throughout the most likely bipolar April-- whom we get the sense may have been modeled on both author Yates' dissatisfied aspiring artist mother as well as own Yates' own struggles with bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and nervous breakdowns as revealed in a Blu-ray only extra.

With April fiercely holding onto the belief that she and Frank were secret allies in their fight against conformity and their destiny to share a life that's unlike the others as something special and wonderful-- after she gives birth to two children and they move to suburbia where she's stuck in a gorgeous home with a picture window on Revolutionary Road, she has a hard time accepting her situation as part of the '50s status quo.

While April's emotions run rampant-- she's poised and determined on the outside-- living life as the type of woman who chooses her words carefully in public despite her frequent blow-ups with Frank. Yet, for appearance sake, April tries to be a good neighbor to Kathy Bates (whose son returns from a mental institution and intriguingly seems to be the only one able to see right through the Wheeler facade) as well as a good friend to another couple, subtly relishing in the way her statuesque beauty commands the attention of her best friend's husband.

However while April busily makes an impulsive plan to support her husband until he discovers his true passion by moving them all to Paris, her bright but dissatisfied husband Frank is the more logical one of the two, working at a dull, lifeless job in advertising essentially repeating what he felt was his father's meaningless existence by working at the exact same company.

With a gift for gab and the true ability to charm anyone he meets (especially young secretaries he sleeps with in the city), April sizes up Frank's willingness to ignore his mutual disgust by observing that, "if black could be made into white by talking, you'd be the man for the job."

Still, as hopeless about their relationship and life on Revolutionary Road as she is-- Frank takes April up on her offer and gives in as the two become closer than ever, actively pursuing the idea of revolting against their feeling of being trapped in lives that are too planned out.

Finding the shock of those around them who have succumbed into conformity amusing and not understanding the way that their friends privately judge their decision as unrealistic, juvenile, and in some cases threatening (since they dared to judge the way that most lives were being lived in 1955), things begin improving for the Wheelers until life tempts their decision with a variety of hurdles which they try to ignore until it's much too late.

Effectively, Road's filmmaking team heighten the explosive tension with an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia by mostly filming the Wheelers on location in their home or in tight corners continuously making us see them as caged prisoners-- not so much stuck in suburbia as they are in their own psyches and the realization that they feel like they belong together but have no idea how to make it work. Moreover, in the same turn we discover that they as well have no genuine idea what they actually want out of life themselves together or apart.

Even in a scene that echoes the area of anonymous gray flannel suits as interchangeable men journey into the city day after day to jobs they loathe just to feed their families, the sunlight and open air is framed tight, making DiCaprio simply one of the masses. In fact, visually Mendes (Winslet's husband) only really frees his characters when they take a walk in the woods and throughout he and the talented cinematographer Roger Deakins use as much natural light as possible in an attempt to convey their fragility, confusion, and desperation by depending on tight closeups that reveal flaws which are refreshingly unhidden by makeup or post-production touch-ups.

Overall I feel it's one of those rare and largely misinterpreted films that-- just like Yates' novel may upon first glance be taken as merely "anti-suburban" and as such-- given a viewer who strongly opposes the work, it ultimately reveals more about the individual judging it than the film in a way that perhaps cuts too close to something in their own life.

For, we're defined just as much by what we loathe as what we love and cinema is no exception, but it's much more than just a cynical view of suburbia as it dares to address the attitudes and landscape of both American men and women in what the author always intended to be a political novel. And, as referenced in the production notes--an interview with the now deceased Yates is quoted as he describes his belief that Road is not "anti-suburban" but was written "as an indictment...of a general lust for conformity all over this country...[as] a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price," which he wrote in an attempt to "suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the '50s."

While admittedly, given his need to execute this, the Wheelers themselves aren't the easiest characters to warm up to at all yet throughout the film I realized that-- while I didn't approve of them or their actions-- at the very least I could understand them and realize the motivations and emotions behind every decision, thereby making Mendes' film penned by screenwriter Justin Haythe and brilliantly brought to life by the cast seem one hundred percent real and just as meaningful today as it was when Yates' novel first hit the shelves.

Seldom in cinema do you actually feel like you understand a character's wishes and their contradictory actions and even more few and far between are opportunities where we actually get a sense of the characters as real people with thought processes and Revolutionary Road succeeds on all of these levels.

In the end, it's a work that deserved far more awards consideration than it received (aside from Winslet's double Golden Globe accolades for Road and The Reader) and more importantly one that's richly rewarding intellectually despite the fact that it definitely does push a viewer through an emotional battlefield. However, the best thing about Road, aside from realizing that the issues are still there today is that its trip towards the tragic finale is entirely logical given everything that's come before it and not just tacked or executed with the heaviest of paintbrushes a la last year's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Snow Angels.

Containing all additional extras on the disc in high definition, the Paramount Home Entertainment release was beautifully transferred to Blu-ray with gorgeous widescreen picture and sound and in fact the sound is so clear that you're quick to learn that composer Thomas Newman's score sounds way too similar to his previous ones for Sam Mendes in American Beauty and Road to Perdition! With stunning quality in the picture that makes all of Deakins' work stand out just as much as it did in Miramax's recent Blu-ray release of No Country for Old Men (which he also shot), we realize just how pitch-perfect the production values were across the board from costuming to art direction. And for this reviewer who failed to RSVP to the theatrical press screening out of fear it was one of those trendy works of dysfunction, I'm happy to report that it was an ideal way to capture the film for the first time at home.