What you really don’t want to do is compare Sam Mendes’s film adaptation of the 1961 Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road to the AMC series Mad Men, which it superficially resembles in time and setting. I am a big fan of the TV series and found myself wrongly criticizing the first 30 minutes of the film on the basis of its lack of sharpness and sizzle.
Like Mad Men, Revolutionary Road is about America, post-Korea and pre-Beatles. The film, however, narrowly focuses on existentialist angst—two characters, the Wheelers (Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio), a young, upwardly mobile couple living in the suburbs, face the fact that they have compromised their true characters and adopted the false fronts society expects of them.
The film’s talkiness, its focus on dialogue over action, is part of its technique for revealing the ways language insists on and then reinforces conformity to norms. The story’s 1955 setting, like Mad Men’s early sixties setting, emphasizes for us, though, just how transient and circumstantial “norms” are.
The timeliness of both the film and the series is that now, in the early twenty-first century, we Americans find ourselves again steeped in pressures to conform—a definite stake has been driven through the heart of the free-wheeling sixties and seventies. Our society today is again intolerant of eccentricity that does not follow prescribed (even marketable) formulae, intolerant of those who refuse easy categorization, and insistent on the rightness of rather narrow and rigid codes of conduct, prefabricated opinion, and a notion of personal success defined by wealth, family, comfort, and security.
The couple’s surname, Wheeler, and the name of the street they live on, Revolutionary Road, both symbolize the circularity of custom and the arbitrariness of personal destiny.
The film begins with an explosive confrontation between the young and outwardly successful husband and wife. Subsequent scenes, through flashback and counterpoint, dissect the compromises expected of them—through nuances of word choice and diction and through the silences they accept—the slow alienation from self that society oppressively demands … in the names of “sanity,” of “duty,” of “common sense.”
Winslett, especially, and DiCaprio are richly deserving of whatever prizes and awards Hollywood chooses to throw at them in the next few months. Equally deserving are supporting performances by Kathy Bates (who costarred with the other two in Titanic, another sort of shipwreck) and Michael Shannon. Bates plays the real-estate agent whose doll’s-house sense of normality and decency is a torment to both herself and those around her. Shannon plays her mentally ill son, victim of numerous electro-shock treatments, whose lack of “balance” stems from society’s bad faith—and his mother is the archetypal emblem of that bad faith.
Bad faith, of course, is what the existentialists called the denial of one’s total freedom of will. It’s the tendency people have of blaming circumstances for failing to remain true to their own natures and dreams. As a character in the film points out, money is often posed as the reason we choose to do what we know is untrue to ourselves, but it is never the real reason.
Duty to work, children, parents, friends, and abstract ideals are likewise traps—convenient traps—to spare us from responsibility for our lives. We blame these things when we lack faith in what we know to be true in ourselves. Revolutionary Road is an intelligent, literate film about two people who face this dilemma.