Sam Mendes makes good films. American Beauty still touches me and Road to Perdition, while not as timeless as American Beauty, was a very remarkable movie. Revolutionary Road, his latest movie, reunites the two stars of Titanic, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, and presents the story of American-style suburban ennui and despair that can settle in to marriage. The movie, I think, can be watched as an existential rebuttal to the pure illusion of love presented in Titantic where there the two lovers, Jack and Rose, are spared the inevitable failure of their love thanks to the disaster of the ship sinking. As Shakespeare writes and Kierkegaard reminds us, better well hung than ill wed. As I’m going to talk about the plot of the movie and some folks may not have yet seen it I’m putting the rest of this post below the fold.
The plot of Revolutionary Road is rather unremarkable. That isn’t to say that it isn’t good, it is, but the plot itself traverses all the usual territory of the Rocky Marriage Film. Boy and girl meet at a party, boy and girl hit it off, boy and girl get married too quickly or because of some exigent reason like a pregnancy, boy and girl become The Wheelers, now husband and wife fall into boring and dreadful routine, husband strays, wife strays, fight, fight, fight, some kind of resolution follows presented either as divorce or a renewal of love. What the movie does depict rather well is the strange and ridiculous ferocity of arguments that take place within marriage. The kind of anger and hatred that only seems to arise out of marriage, perhaps due to frustration or simply not knowing how this whole thing should work. Regardless, that aspect of the film, the mundane tale of marriage, is portrayed very well but is not groundbreaking. Where the plot does add a new layer to the story it only serves to lift us, the viewers of this marriage, up for a moment in order to drive us deeper into the ground of despair. Winslet’s character, April Wheeler, has the grand and risky idea of moving the family to Paris where she, not her husband, could provide the family’s income and he can find himself. This plan revitalizes the family and part of that revitalization is seeing the complete disdain for the plan on the faces of their friends. The whole thing falls apart when, yet again, April becomes pregnant and Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) is offered a promotion.
This decent into despair at the realization by April that her husband is happy with who he is – which is to say that he is happy with his usual suburban life and his boring, useless advertising job in the city where he can every now and then fuck a younger secretary – this decent into despair is dizzying in the movie. It eventually ends with yet another insane, but completely realistic, fight between the couple that is followed by April’s steely calm the next morning where she plays the perfect wife prior to inducing an at home abortion that results in her death. Frank moves away with his kids, the neighbors welcome the new family to Revolutionary Road, and the suburbs persist into the future as if nothing truly happened.
The movie itself is hard to read. I said above that I think it is meant as an anti-Titanic film and this is supported by several factors. First, Mendes is married to Winslet and it is a well known fact that Winslet is not a fan of Titanic. Secondly, it seems that the casting of Winslet and DiCaprio opposite one another is intentional in its bringing to mind this pair of lovers that loomed large over the final years of the 90’s. Thirdly, there is a scene where, after Frank has put an end to the Paris moving plans, April fucks a neighbor in a car. The scene brings to mind the climactic scene in Titanic where Jack frees Rose when they finally make love in a car ending with the hand on the foggy window. This scene from Titanic is notable for its foggy, naive idealism. We’re not presented with the absurdity of fucking, of two bodies grinding into each other, and the ridiculousness that is presented to any objective viewpoint. What is presented is a swell of music and certain secondary motions that signify sex is taking place behind that fogged up window which is finally broken as the orgasmic hand of perfect love forcefully presses itself into the perspiration. The scene in Revolutionary Road, with a grown up Kate in April Wheeler, is completely opposite. There is no romance, even as her co-adulterer asks if he can take her somewhere else, she refuses saying to do it right there. They both pull down their pants just enough to allow for the act which lasts about 30 seconds. (Tangent: Why is movie sex so unrealistically short? Surely because it would be boring to watch anymore of it! Sex and sugar cubes soaking up coffee are one and the same.) In this scene it is the man, and not the woman, who pushes his hand against the window as he orgasms. But April is left unmoved even as the man professes his, until then, hidden love for her. This was no act of freedom, as Titanic tried to present it, this was the act of a desperate and unhappy woman.
Still though, the question I find some people ask about this movie is what is Mendes trying to make us think? Are we supposed to pity the Wheelers? Or are we supposed to revile them as pathetic individuals who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives? Pity or revulsion? Often directors will give us a scene that provides the hermeneutic lens from which to read the meaning of the movie. Not to say we have to take that scene or that other readings aren’t possible! Yet, locating this scene will often help to bring out a more interesting reading or help us locate why the film fails. Mendes, however, is a better filmmaker than most. He presents two scenes, two opposed scenes, and it seems that both are the hermeneutic scene.
The first one involves the Wheelers neighbors, a married couple stuck in the same rut as the Wheelers but seemingly without the same dissatisfaction despite the husband’s moment of adultery with April. It is clear that the husband loves April and truly admires the Wheelers as a “great couple”. At the end of the film we see this couple entertaining the new couple who have moved into the former Wheeler home and in the course of that entertaining the wife is telling them about the tragedy of the Wheelers. This upsets the husband and he gets up, tears welling in his eyes, to go into their back yard which looks down onto the Wheelers former home. His wife follows and asks what’s wrong and his simple answer is, “I don’t want to talk about the Wheelers anymore.” I think that’s true of everyone watching the film at this point. We’ve been barraged with nearly two hours of near constant marital despair. Despair that many watching surely think can be overcome if the couple would simply divorce or make an effort. After all the neighbors, in the same situation, are not nearly as desperate for a different life as the Wheelers! There is something pathetic about the Wheelers, yes, and perhaps it is time, this scene tells us, to be done with them. Marriage is a choice after all, all relationships are a choice, and we may either accept and live with that choice or we may let it destroy us – the usual hard-nosed American decisionism.
Yet the final scene presents a very different hermeneutic lens through which to read the film. We are presented again with a couple talking about the Wheelers. This couple is much older and the wife is the one who sold the house to the Wheelers and then, after April’s death and Frank’s departure, sold it again to the new couple. She begins telling her husband, who is reading the paper, that she really likes this new couple and that they are the first people she has sold the house on Revolutionary Road to that she thinks really fit the place. He reminds her that she really liked the Wheelers and her response is that, yes, they were nice, but they didn’t put in the proper upkeep to the house and are the very reason she had difficulty selling the place. The house can be read as a metaphor for their marriage. This woman, who has been part of a long-lasting marriage, is passing judgment on the Wheelers marriage and their lack of upkeep. As she continues talking the soundtrack, which is very minimal throughout, comes heartbreakingly in as the old man slowly turns the volume knob on his hearing aid all the way down until we can hear nothing and see only the face of survival. It is a stark scene and the actor, Richard Easton, expresses a great deal of hidden emotion on his blank face. This is the face of suburban marriage.
I still don’t know which scene should have primacy over the other, or if either really should. What is clear is that Mendes does not present an easy film at all. He presents a raw and real depiction of how marriage can be and the tension present in these two opposite hermeneutic scenes refuses any cinematic judgment on the Wheelers. It does make the viewer wonder, or at least makes me wonder, is survival the best we can hope for in our human relationships as they pass from the intensity of first love to the mundane reality of everyday living? Or, is Revolutionary Road a movie calling for, as Alain Badiou has, the reinvention of love?