By Colin Covert
Winslet and DiCaprio are astonishing.
In a movie season where the most consistent emotion filmmakers have offered was disappointment tinged with despair comes the bleakest, most beautiful downer of them all.
“Revolutionary Road” is easily the best-acted film of 2008, and one of the most corrosive. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio give turbulent, astonishing performances as Frank and April Wheeler, a thirtyish couple whose relationship is one part “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” one part “Babbitt” and one part arsenic.
They seemed promising, initially. We first encounter them at a big-city party full of smart young people, making flirtatious small talk and dancing close. “Frank Wheeler,” she says, “I think you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” That flattering first impression is gone in a flash.
With a single edit we leap ahead several years into their marriage, with April, a would-be actress, fumbling through a community theater drama. Frank can scarcely conceal his chagrin afterward, and his condescending praise compounds April’s humiliation. Their drive home escalates from exasperation through pent-up resentment into a magma burst of seething rage. No one who has been witness to a disastrous marriage can observe this eruption without a shudder of sympathy. The raw power of the emotions is almost unbearable.
Frank and April make a stab at buying contentment when they purchase a prim house in Connecticut. The address — on Revolutionary Road — is constant reminder of the adventurous paths they both fear to travel. As a couple, they endure coexistence without intimacy. They are partly prisoners of their egos, partly of their environment and era.
Richard Yates’ novel, the 1961 National Book Award-winner, took a merciless scalpel to the frustrations of midcentury suburban life. The Wheelers are trapped in a milieu of stifling conformity, he commuting daily amid a crush of cattle in gray flannel to earn their bread, she tied tight in an apron at home, baking it.
But the couple’s festering discontents aren’t just an allegory of the time. Their fatal flaw is the unjustified belief that they are uniquely gifted creatures, superior to their surroundings — hubris is a defect in human nature with no expiration date. Frank flatters himself that he has artistic abilities untapped by his job writing catalogue copy for an office machine company. April wants to cast off her domesticity and move with Frank to bohemian Paris, where she will type for the diplomatic corps and he will work on ... well, something creative.
By moving them to France, April will convince herself that she married an adventurous free spirit, not a timid phony. “We are the most beautiful and wonderful thing in the world,” she insists. But Frank is a hollow creature, and so is she. Frank sneers at the “hopeless emptiness” of suburban life while accepting its mausoleum tidiness. April is as superficial as the theater club makeup she daubs on for her disastrous stage debut.
Each begins sabotaging the getaway plan to expatriate life as soon as it is announced. Each betrays the marriage with a cheap affair. She keens in wounded neediness and erupts in spittle-flecked rage. He is alternately baffled and belligerent. A scene near the end where a glacially composed Winslet serves the nervous DiCaprio breakfast vividly conjures up the nitroglycerine tension of their relationship.
Watching these two stars tear into each other is like viewing a bullfight. It’s unspeakably cruel yet mesmerizing. And the ironic casting of “Titanic’s” immortal lovers as brutal antagonists on a marital battlefield is initially funny, then deeply upsetting.
The supporting cast members serve as red flags to warn the heedless young couple of the dangers awaiting them. Dylan Baker is wickedly sardonic as Frank’s alcoholic coworker, Kathy Bates (another “Titanic” alum) makes their gossipy real estate agent a humdrum horror, and Michael Shannon contributes a scene-stealing turn as Bates’ institutionalized son, a schizophrenic Greek chorus who sees the true hopelessness of the Wheelers’ lives.
There are passages of narrative ham-handedness that weaken the story (a portentous discussion of the safest way to terminate a pregnancy virtually gives you a road map to the story’s conclusion) but director Sam Mendes guides the actors to moments of tragic offhand brilliance in almost every scene. This is a movie you can’t help but admire, even as it tears the bark off you.