Friday, January 23, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, USA, 2008)
Sam Mendes is proving himself a very deft director, not that any of his previous work indicated otherwise, but with successive films he's certainly accumulating an impressive body of work. Revolutionary Road is a really well-made film that I find hard to flaw. Mendes has removed all the overt humour and satire he used in American Beauty and given us a very raw and real suburban drama.

The film is multi-layered, tackling various themes, some overt and some very subtle. This is where Mendes shows his skill. He depicts themes specific to the period (the 1950s), but doesn't join all the dots. He assumes we know enough of the period not to have to articulate everything we see on screen.

Meanwhile, the more overt elements comprise largely the dynamics between the two main characters, married couple Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet). The film socially and culturally is set in the 50s and the idiosyncrasies of the time are well captured, but more importantly, Mendes demonstrates his astute awareness of the complex nature of conjugal relationships that are universal. This element is so rich, depicted with so much skill that is a testament to the ability of the director and the excellent performances of both DiCaprio and Winslet.

Frank is a more significant character in the film, so DiCaprio really gets to show that he is maturing as an actor. I thought there were hints of this in The Aviator, but his youthfulness worked against him in that film. In this one, he seems perfect for the part.

Winslet has got to be one of my favourite British actresses and this has got to be one of her best performances. It's nuanced, strong, conflicted, erratic and captures the duality of femininity. I'd have to say it's one of the most authentic roles of its type that I've ever seen. She has a natural non-conventional beauty and I was struck by the similarities with Gillian Anderson, another actress that I also find both very attractive and smart.

A theme the film explores is the idealism that is sacrificed by reality and the need to make ends meet or get ahead in the world. The conflict this causes within a relationship, and the evolution (or devolution) of love is examined with heart-breaking honesty.

Michael Shannon was excllent in Shotgun Stories, and his performance in Revolutionary Road plays a curious role. Adding a light touch of a different kind, his character is basically a device to articulate that which normally is unspoken in such a society. Through him, we can also question what is insanity, or who is truly insane.

The film looks great, the art production gives a very authentic ambience, the support characters are all authentic (Kathy Bates' character is great, especially with her comments at the end), the camera work is excellent and Thomas Newman's score, though not dissimilar to his work in American Beauty, seems just right.

I know many often refer to American Beauty as a satire or comedy, but I never took it as that. I always felt that it was so close to the bone in its depictions of family life that it was pure
drama, albeit made more digestible (for mass consumption) through the use of humour (which is different to comedy). Revolutionary Road does tread similar territory to American Beauty which I think shows how serious a story-teller Mendes is, even with funny material. The dynamics, issues and aesthetics are very different between both films, but it's interestingto compare them.

Good American dramas have been very thin on the ground for some time, and Revolutionary Road is long-overdue in this regard. It boosts my faith in cinema releases.

Lastly, the less you know and have seen about the film, the better. I'd forgotten what it was about until it got started and I loved that things didn't pan out the way I expected.


Glenn said...

I saw this today and liked it, but didn't love it. I thought the final scene with Bates gave a hint at a far darker and more gothic version of the tale that I probably would have preferred.

Winslet was very good as was DiCaprio although I didn't quite see the hoopla that has surrounded Shannon's performance since it came out. Have you seen "Bug"? he's impressive as another mentally unstable character in that horror flick.

Paul Martin said...

I thought Shannon was good, but am surprised that he's the one with the Oscar nomination (for best supporting actor). I think Winslet deserved her Golden Globe award for best actress. But I don't subscribe to interest in awards generally (not American ones). They seem to bear little relevance to what I see on the screen. Revolutionary Road seems to have mixed reviews. For me, it's exceptional in its nuance, and its ability to tap these minute details within relationships that are timeless. It reminds me of La séparation (1994) by Christian Vincent starring Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil.

Haven't seen Bug.