Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Revolutionary Road: Going Nowhere

It’s usually the action-filled movies that leave us humming a few measures of their theme music as we walk through the multiplex parking lot. Movies like Superman, with John Williams’ soaring brass, or Pirates of the Caribbean, with a melody so distinctive that it just might start a new genre: Pirate Music. Then there is Revolutionary Road. Sure, there is action in Sam Mendes’ film: a husband clears a dresser-top in fury, he slams his fist into the roof of a car; a wife runs into the woods across the street, she whirls like a bacchante on a dance floor. But the fundamental condition of April and Frank Wheeler—and of all the other suburban women and their men who come and go on Westchester trains—is restlessness. And perhaps the best evocation of their trapped lives is Thomas Newman’s score. (listen here)

Two days after I walked out of the movie theater, I am still hearing in my head the simple, open piano chords that sound at numerous moments during the film. I will leave it to others who know more about music to analyze and explain exactly what is going on. Suffice it to say that, with its restless movement and the elusive resolution of its chords, Newman’s score captures what Kate Winslet’s April says to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank: “I can’t stay and I can’t go.”

April says this in a discussion of whether to abort the child that might keep the Wheelers from escaping to Paris. But she might as well be talking about every aspect of a woman’s life in Mendes’ and Richard Yates’ 1950s suburbs. After an argument in one of the film’s early scenes—an argument in which Frank almost hits her—April gets back into the car’s passenger seat. She likely can’t drive, and she certainly doesn’t even consider taking responsibility for her own motion. Mendes’ camera work emphasizes this idea. Nearly every time we see April outside either her home or the home of a neighbor, she is filmed alone, in tight close-up. Even in the American Express office as she prepares for their trip, the camera frames her tightly enough that we can barely make out the map behind her.

Frank is no better off, though the men in this movie have the advantage of getting out of their houses and into shots with a wider frame than those that depict the women. Still, though Mendes gives them two elegantly filmed set pieces, the men’s movement is lemming-like—on train platforms, on the steps in Grand Central. Like the music, they move while not seeming to move at all. The grandness of these scenes underscores the self-delusion of both characters who are, as April says in a moment of clarity, no different from anybody else.

What is a shame about Revolutionary Road is that Newman’s music outshines Kate Winslet’s intense but ultimately disappointing performance. While she utters the line that expresses the Wheelers’ emotional situation, her acting doesn’t quite access the depth of April’s despair. The performance is a very stylized one, as clearly articulated and unnatural as Winslet’s thorough American diction. (This makes sense from the stage director whose first foray into film was the highly stylized American Beauty.) While I am willing to grant Winslet and Mendes the possibility that this was what they were after—the mid-century American woman so desperate that she either rages grandly or bites her emotions back into a surreal calm—this approach doesn’t mesh with the much more naturalistic performance of DiCaprio. If there is an Oscar performance in this film, it is his. (Coming soon: The Two Kates, a comparative review of the two Winslets on current screens.)

One of the watchwords for Revolutionary Road among movie-goers is: don’t go see it if you’re in any way familiar with a bad marriage. In an odd way, I wish this had been true. This movie should be devastating, not just upsetting (and make no mistake, it is certainly upsetting). Still:  go see Revolutionary Road. You’ll admire its technique and its craft; you’ll feel deeply sorry for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank. And I’m guessing you’ll come out of the theater trying to remember how exactly that music goes.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I remember thinking DiCaprio was a bit underpowered at the beginning and then finding him much more impressive than Winslet by the end.