The Truth Behind the White Picket Fence
Sam Mendes’ first film, American Beauty, was a depiction of the emptiness at the heart of the modern American’s middle-class lifestyle.
After two films of reasonably varied subject matter (Road to Perdition, Jarhead), Mendes has turned his gaze once again upon the thing that lurks underneath the kitchen sink and behind the white picket fence by adapting Richard Yates’1962 novel for the screen.
In Revolutionary Road the setting is America of the 1950s, but the themes of stasis, escapism, longing and unfullfilment are still very much the same.
Revolutionary Road is a depiction of the relationship between Frank and April Wheeler, a young, picturesque couple who meet at a party. Frank is a confident, dynamic, idealistic and impulsive guy, April a cultured, self-possessed and sensual woman.
They both share a passion and zest for life and yearn for spontaneity and for “feeling alive.” They fall very quickly and very deeply in love, invigorated at the thought of the bigger dreams that could be achieved together.
Before they have chance to catch their breath, they have signed up. They get married, she falls pregnant and they buy a whitewashed house on Revolutionary Road where they can raise a family.
He becomes the breadwinner, but hates the anodyne banality of his job. As he shuffles between work and home, surrounded by men of near-identical, Lowryesque dress and hue, it is clear he perceives both as a cage.
April, meanwhile, packs away her ambitions to act and instead stays at home to play the housewife, dust the coffee table and drink coffee with elderly neighbours. Both develop a deep resentment towards the cultivated lifestyle they have built together.
They separately question why a model of living that seems to bring contentment and satisfaction to their neighbours and friends can stultify them to such an excruciating degree. Inflicted with such loneliness and anxious ennui, they suffer and cause suffering in equal measure.
Together and separately, they grapple with the same recurring questions. Are they somehow special, or are they just the same as everyone else? Can they together overcome the sense of “hopeless emptiness,” as Frank calls it, which seems to surround them, or have they merely not yet resigned themselves to the inevitable and unavoidable inhibitions of adult life?
Frank and April are stymied with self-consciousness. They ask, without hope of an answer, if it is they who are in the wrong, who are somehow inherently “wrong” due to their feelings of intense suffocation, or whether they possess a superior sense of existentialism and a more material commitment to their lives to that of their contemporaries.
Peter Bradshaw writes in his review:
“There will be some in the audience who might not have the stomach for this, or think it freighted with precisely the kind of provincialism that Frank and April are trying to reject.
But there are real ideas here, ideas about intimacy and our sense of ourselves, about how much of these individual selves has to be abandoned in the service of a marriage, about whether this abandonment is tragic or if marriage is itself a silent, private, preordained tragedy.”
Together, they devise a plan of mouth-watering potential and romance. They will sell their house, withdraw their savings and move to Paris. April will work as a secretary whilst Frank can take some time and finally work out what he wants to do with his life.
The plan regalvanises their relationship, and for a time it appears they have rediscovered whatever it is that was lost in their mutual conformity to society’s plan. Suddenly, they cannot take their hands off each other and seem at odds when they stand apart, as if a single entity had been prised apart.
Revolutionary Road is a contemporary Chekhovian drama; Paris for Frank and April is Moscow for Masha, Irena and Olga. In true Chekhovian form, there are no prizes for guessing their dream never materialises.
Instead, it becomes a fantasy that the characters grip hold of, which they trade with and threaten to withdraw, and which propels them into a state of self-delusional destructionism.
April becomes a picture of feminine poise and reserve, constantly appealing for a space and peace to try and “work out” problems that cannot be resolved through silence and self-absorption. The space she craves is something Frank cannot grant her.
He finds her silence and composure unfathomable and disorientating and, in a tangle of typical masculine insecurities, communicates to her through a mixture of frustrated anger, threatening one-upmanship and increasingly desperate requests for reassurance.
She, equally, veers from patronizing his vulnerable boyishness to fiercely and tenderly maternalising him. Both interactions succeed in emasculating him.
The film has been criticized in some quarters as emotionally alienating, dismissing Frank and April as fundamentally dislikeable characters that offer nothing new to a genre that focuses on the tired and worn aspects of adult life and is in itself tired and worn.
They argue it is repetitive and didactic and needlessly cynical about our seemingly natural gravitation towards monogamy.
“Revolutionary Road recycles all the clichés and stereotypes about suburban life. Instead of showing us something new, we get suburban men with their lives of quiet desperation and weepy, unfulfilled wives on the brink of going gaga. At heart, the trouble with Revolutionary Road is that it has no heart.”
Little White Lies goes even further:
“It’s like a giant roadside advertisement against ever attempting union. It leaves you feeling voyeuristically sullied; scrubbing the blood out of your mental carpet, privy to something simultaneously indulgent and inconsequential.”
I, however, disagree with these sentiments. Revolutionary Road is indicative of a director who has matured vastly over a relatively short career. He displays a cool, almost clinical detachment to his subject matter, authorising two excellent actors to communicate a story which, like it or not, has aching universal relevance.
Frank and April Wheeler may not be representative of mankind, they may not be nice or successful or functional people, but you cannot accuse their fate of being unique. If anything, their problems are painfully familiar, prevalent behind every drawn curtain and closed front door.
Many couples have the ability to keep a cap on their disparities, or let them eek and leak out slowly. But an inability to come to terms with reality, an inability to support each other when the chips are down, an insistence on not talking about the most difficult topics, or of turning that gleaming analysis of the other upon one’s self. They’re all there, every day, everywhere, all the time, between so many people. Try and tell me they’re not.
This is, in many respects, the same film as American Beauty, just devoid of the abstractions and “this plastic bag is so beautiful” pseudo-sentimentalities that make that film seem, in retrospect and comparison, so unbearably juvenile in its pretensions.
Yes, Revolutionary Road may be cynical and pessimistic and depressing. In terms of subversion, it may not compare to its cinematic ancestors Blue Velvet (David Lynch) and Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes). It may aim to degrade or overtly assault monogamy without suggesting any ulterior lifestyle choice but, unfortunately for the ongoing union of men and women, it cannot be accused of triviality. It is, unfortunately, guilty of quite the opposite.