Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel, opens with the cruelest of cuts. We see protagonists Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) as they meet each other. Enchanted young bohemians at a crowded New York party, they dance too close for people who have just met. It’s clear to anyone watching where the night will take them and their expressions tell each other they both know it too. But they can’t know, as the film knows, where subsequent nights will take them. So it’s heartbreaking when Mendes moves immediately to one unfortunate evening years later that finds Winslet failing as the lead in a community theater performance as DiCaprio, now her husband, watches without hiding his disappointment. When he tries to reassure her on the way home, they fight. Now, many evenings on from that romantic reverie, they fight a lot.
Released in 1961, Yates’ novel looked back at the, in Yates’ words, “lust for conformity” that defined the previous decade by watching the promise melt from a young couple in the New York suburb they call home. Mendes’ film faithfully follows. A bohemian no more, DiCaprio has channeled his vague ambition into an unsatisfying career at an IBM-like behemoth while Winslet keeps house for their two school-age children. He makes the trudging gray-suited commute to cubicles, martinis, and an almost obligatory affair while her despair deepens until one night, after crunching a few numbers, she hits on a plan: They can pack it all in for a new life in Paris, where he can figure out what he’s meant to do while she brings home a paycheck. It’s a notion that both revives their marriage and seals their fate.
As with Yates’ novel, Revoultionary Road offers an intense study of two characters who neither know themselves nor each other, living in a place where introspection goes to die. It’s keenly observed, handsomely mounted, supremely well-acted, and distant in a way the period trappings can’t quite explain away. Winslet and DiCaprio’s many scenes together have a volatile, lived-in chemistry, but Mendes never really lets us know them. The film’s best moments come when they’re forced to interact with their fellow suburbanites, particularly a pair of scenes involving nosy realtor Kathy Bates’ institutionalized son, played with unsettling intensity as a truth-telling holy fool by Michael Shannon.
It’s impossible not to watch Revolutionary Road without hearing echoes of other films. Icons of first love in bloom thanks to Titanic, it’s almost sadistic to cast Winslet and DiCaprio as lovers at the end (with Titanic co-star Bates standing watch, no less). Making his first return to the American suburbs since his American Beauty debut, Mendes finds no floating bags to remind his characters of life’s potential for beauty, just a lot of cul-de-sacs whose manicured lawns hide the aridness beneath. Both director and cast keep the familiar journey intense, but after capturing the death of love in those opening moments, the rest of the film too often feels like a study in dissection.