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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Revolutionary Road" : Bleak, Bold and Brilliant

(Originally published here on

Once you are done with your board exams, and the laundry-list of competitive exams which follow, there is a lull-period of almost three months before you actually join college. People do all kinds of stuff during that time: some learn how to drive(and then proceed to channelize messrs Schumacher, Hamilton and Raikkonen), some take to uselessly useful stuff like the odd fag or the infrequent tipple. A few smart alecks actually manage, God forbid, to get laid(assuming they haven’t already). Some foolishly starving autodidact losers like me bummed around the house, nose buried among yellowed pages, vacant expression in place.

It was during this time that I read Richard Yates’s cruel gift to mankind…. “Revolutionary Road” was bleak, bold and brilliant. I remember my first reaction at finishing the book was “Thank God it’s over….” , and I mean that in the best possible way. Seldom does one come across such a clinical negation of everything a man hopes to live for. All the reviews said how it was meant to be a rebuttal of The American Dream, how the institution of marriage was the palette through which Yates took his potshots at the vagaries of the human existence; how the author attacked the human need for conformity…..oh, how they rambled. But all I could feel was how alone the man must be, how utterly and profoundly alone….it was much later that I read Yates’s interview on an archive somewhere, where he said

If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

It took me three Mithun-da films and two Harry Potter readings to get over my gloom after reading this pessimistic masterpiece. And I thought I’d seen the last of it. Only that idiot Sam Mendes had to come up with a masterpiece of his own……

For “Revolutionary Road” is a masterpiece, a work by a major auteur whose artistry is evident in nearly every frame. For the uninitiated(here’s the part where your reviewer gives a bald, perfunctory plot summary, giving just enough to keep you on tenterhooks, taking care not to give away too much), the film is about a young and ambitious suburban couple, Frank and April Wheeler(played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) They have half-baked, romantic notions about “living life as it’s meant to be”. April manages to convince Frank that he should quit his boring behind-the-desk, same-as-everyone-else’s job, and that they should move to Paris, where he “could be all that he is”. She herself studied to be an actor, but found out, embarrassingly enough, that she’s not especially gifted. Frank, too, desperately wants to break free from his suburban shackles(and the memory of a mediocre father), but does he want it bad enough?

After World War II, where America faced the threat of Hitler, who had the means to take down their nation, there was a sudden rush for conformity and a cosy, coccooned existence among the American middle-class. The Wheelers are representative of that middle-class, only this
time, they want out.

Clearly, the road to redemption is paved with thorns, and it’s as if everything the Wheelers do to escape their nondescript existence comes back to hanut them. The token All-American neighbours Milly and Shep Campbell are played to modest perfection by Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour(whom you might have caught in a bit role in Quantum of Solace earlier last year). I remember, in an earlier post about Road To Perdition, I mentioned that Mendes had brought back the Titanic troika of DiCaprio, Winslet and Kathy Bates for this film. And I meant the last part….sure enough, veteran Bates is pitch-perfect as Helen Givings, the realtor next door who sells them the house at the ironically named Revolutionary Road.

The wafer-thin veneer of domestic bliss that the Wheelers maintain on the outside is shattered when the Givings’s son, John comes for dinner. A former mathematician who is now institutionalized, he rips their charade apart with his merciless, and cruelly accurate observations about the Wheeler’s pathetic attempts to find a semblance of meaning in their existence. Michael Shannon, who plays John Givings, turns in a simply outstanding performance as he outshines his more illustrious colleagues in the brief time he is on-screen. His character is perhaps the best example of Sam Mendes’s thetrical sensibilities coming to the fore. Shannon’s carefully cunning half-smiles, his sudden and alarming fits of energy, his rants are all classic bits of theatre histrionics. On the writing level, his character is the perfect “enforcer” used in plays….one might even go as far as to describe him as the Chekhov’s Gun here( a Chekhov’s gun is a character or an object introduced earlier on in the play, but whose significance is revealed only towards the end.)

The lead pair are in fine form themselves. Kate Winslet, whose character is the pivot around which the story revolves, gets full marks for her performance as April Wheeler, a tormented, complex character who seeks romance in her life elsewhere once her dreams of becoming an actor are all but shattered. She seldom puts a foot wrong, especially in the flat-out high voltage showdown scenes. Is there anything she can’t do? Nominated but ignored for the Big O a staggering five times, will this be the performance that gets her the pot this time… certainly hopes so. And where do I begin about Leonardo Di Caprio? There is little one can say which will add to or change his status as perhaps the defining actor of his generation. In 2006, he did two unbelievable roles in The Departed and Blood Diamond. Most actors would be happy to pull off one of those in an entire career, let alone in the space of an year. His collaborations with Scorsese have already prompted people to call him the next De Niro…..and with good reason. Be it Gangs of New York, The Aviator or The Departed, Di Caprio has stamped his class all over the films, and has proven that he belongs among the big boys. His performance as Frank Wheeler will be tough to ignore once the Oscar season hots up, and while for me, Sean Penn ought to scoop up the big ones this year for Milk; it is another feather in Leo’s cap.

Where does Sam Mendes go from here? A theatre director, who dabbles in cinema every now and then, he has given us three absolute gems in Road To Perdition, American Beauty and now Revolutionary Road(Jarhead, while a decent effort, isn’t in the same league for me) He seems to know just the right mood every scene requires. The biting satire of American Beauty is tempered here by a sombre gravity…….One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is his distinctive visual style……the grim black-and-white trench coat Depression era palette of Road To Perdition, even the dusty, sandy , khaki-peppered bleakness of Iraq in Jarhead. Here, we have heavy interior decors and suffocating indoor shots which bring out the themes of suburban claustrophobia brilliantly.

Perhaps the only things which I can say against it are these: both the Wheeler’s infidelities seem a trifle contrived, and the film doesn’t quite bring out the zeitgeist of 50’s America that well(we just have some vague dialogues from Leo about his joining the war in a fit of adrenaline)But then again, I thought that the novel focusses more on the internal conflicts of the central characters than anything else, so I guess that’s excusable.

Revolutionary Road is a haunting piece of art, one for the collection, really. In a week where I had some very diverse cinematic experiences (starting from Slumdog Millionaire, then The Wrestler, Gran Torino and now this…), I cannot recommend it highly enough….

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