The blistering drama Revolutionary Road has two big ideas: Suburbia suffocates the soul and Titanic sleeps with the fishes. The first idea was still subversive when Richard Yates published his novel in 1961 but is now old hat. The second, which involves transplanting the stars of a dumb but powerful romantic fantasy to the arena of domestic tragedy, is smashingly effective. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the lovers whose hearts were supposed to go on, have aged into Frank and April Wheeler, and this time it’s their relationship that hits an iceberg.
It’s 1955: Frank works in a mindless job at the business-machine company that ground down his dad, and puts drunken moves on a chubby secretary; April stays home in Connecticut with two kids and cleans and stares at patios of other peoples’ houses and feels her creativity and optimism leaching out of her. In a desperate bid for sanity, she proposes they abandon their dead-end suburban lives and move to Paris and reverse roles: She’ll work, and he’ll mind the kids and tackle the artistic projects he talked about when they were young and he was king of the world. Taken aback but touched by her fervor, Frank says, “Why not?” The question is: Will this transatlantic crossing go more smoothly?
The movie is directed by Sam Mendes, the Brit who won an Oscar for another bit of suburban bashing, American Beauty. The thrust of Revolutionary Road is essentially the same, but Mendes’s first film was a broad satire with a glaze of New Age mysticism—and it was postfeminist, so the childlike husband wilted from the pressure to conform, while the castrating-bitch career-woman wife laid down the law. This film is a naturalistic chamber piece, on the other side of Betty Friedan: The woman is dying inside, while the man (also childlike—some things never change) drifts into conformity. Taking a job at his dad’s old company was meant as an ironic gesture—kind of a goof—but now the prospect of money and security is proving difficult to resist. If the novel is more surprising, it’s because Yates largely writes from the male perspective, and the way Frank goes with the flow while telling himself he still has free will (he’s hip to pop-sociology critiques of the suburbs) has more psychological zigzags than April’s mad-housewife epiphanies. Mendes—Mr. Kate Winslet—leans toward April’s point of view, so we see Frank’s vacillations through her increasingly enraged eyes.
Yet those vacillations are something to see. Unlike many child actors who’ve made the successful transition to grown-up roles, DiCaprio hasn’t evolved in predictable ways—there are no clear lines of demarcation. His boys were unusually centered, his adults unusually boyish. His wide face still carries some insulating baby-fat, like Elvis Presley’s and Bill Clinton’s (before the latest weight loss), and Mendes uses that insulation against him, sometimes cruelly: What was self-assured and spring-heeled in Titanic now looks dodgy. Mendes and Winslet push DiCaprio to places he has never been. At the height of her fury, April flays Frank, and both the character and the actor have nowhere to hide. DiCaprio loses his sure balance, his control, and has never been more vulnerable or electrifying: Winslet has forced him into the moment.
Well, she could force anyone into the moment. In Revolutionary Road, her emotions are too big for her face; she’s such an elastic actress, so in tune with her characters’ feelings, that her features seem to expand or contract in every scene. Her movements are wary, overly tight, like a woman no longer at home in her body; and when she releases that tension and moves in on DiCaprio, it’s as if she’s finally able to breathe. There is a cost to that freedom: April demolishes the marriage to survive, yet she might not be equipped to survive its demolition. There isn’t a banal moment in Winslet’s performance—not a gesture, not a word. Is Winslet now the best English-speaking film actress of her generation? I think so.
Though I’ve never been sold on Mendes’s films (the waterlogged Road to Perdition, pulp plus metaphysics, is an eye-roller), the theater work of his I’ve seen has been uniformly wonderful. Onstage, he has a grasp of design as metaphor, and every dramatic beat is on the nose (without being too on the nose). Revolutionary Road plays to his strengths. The visual set pieces, like the sea of hats emerging from the New York train station, are self-conscious, but get Mendes in a room with quick-witted actors and the crosscurrents are dizzying. The Wheelers’ neighbors (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour) aren’t as vivid as in Yates’s novel, in which we’re privy to their thoughts, but their scenes have a distinctive weirdness, and Harbour’s mixture of the predatory and the yearning is squirm-inducing. The rhythms are organically off.