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Generally Recognized As True: Thoughts on "Revolutionary Road"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thoughts on "Revolutionary Road"


The above picture that is often seen accompanying the film "Revolutionary Road" is brilliant in more ways than one. First of all, in one shot it portrays one of the essential messages of the film: that you can't read anything into appearances -- the characters in the photo are inscrutable. Secondly, for marketing purposes, it allows you to project whatever meaning you want onto the image. It is Kate and Leonardo, back for a second run at Titanic-like fare, right? Absolutely not. You could not be more wrong.

But that's what I had assumed going in, and until I found out more about it I wasn't interested. I liked "Titanic" very much, but it's something that I thought might be ruined by an attempt to capitalize on the partnership once again.

I'm not going to give a big long review because there are probably plenty of better ones out there than anything I could write (you may not want to go further than Christopher Hitchen's excellent and rich review in The Atlantic). But, I'll write a few things about what stood out to me. I'll get one point out of the way first: as above, I was worried that it'd be a failed attempt to recapture the magic of "Titanic". I initially saw the two actors as they were in their former roles and mentally rolled my eyes when even Kathy Bates showed up near the beginning in a role very similar to the one she had as the Unsinkable Molly Brown in "Titanic". These doubts held out for about 15 minutes and never surfaced again -- this film is something that stands on its own two feet.

First, this point may clear up something straight away: "Revolutionary Road" is simply the name of a road in a suburban housing development that is somewhat on the frontier of suburban housing developments in America. Set in 1955 (the novel was written in 1961), we get to see what we imagine might confront a young couple leaving the city for a place that promises an idyllic place to raise a family.

From that point-of-view alone, it is interesting. But beyond that superficial veneer, it's a film about so many things.

It's a film about the promise of suburbia at its inception and how the promise was true to the letter, but that after living in the bustle of the city you didn't anticipate that you couldn't spend entire days and lives in such tedious tranquility. As the chaos unfolds on-screen, the birds continue to peacefully chirp in the background. It's so subtle as to almost be unnoticeable, but I'm sure it was no accident.

It's a film about outward appearances of not only the individual but also a marriage and, further, the forced neighbourhoods of suburbia and how they can be so difficult to reconcile with what's really going on inside all three.

It's also a film about the pressures of the American Dream and the unrealistic expectations it can set up for people. The promise of what's to be had and what is actually realized can railroad some people into disappointment, no matter how relatively successful they are at the things that matter in life.

What's true in public is rarely true in private. In fact, you could find more truth in inverting everything anyone says to your face and assuming the opposite to be true. With that in mind, when everyone is so friendly and positive to your face it can be depressing to consider what it really means, and considerable effort is spent by the characters here in avoiding that line of thought. In an interesting plot tool, when we are introduced to the son of the real estate agent that sold the young couple their house who the young couple dines with on a couple of occasions, we learn that he holds a Ph.D in Mathematics but has sadly deteriorated mentally and is in and out of the mental hospital. But he is the only the one who tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He tells everyone involved what they're too ashamed to think or too polite to say, no matter how angry they become.

"Revolutionary Road" is excellent at everything it set out to do. I think it took a talented director to pull this off. Many times, you are put in the shoes of the people trying to express the complexity of what's going on inside. You know when the words that are spoken didn't come out right, and it's not just because of the excellent acting but because of the dialogue and pacing and the way everything unfolds. I can't say I have seen too many films that have put me in that position so easily and genuinely. It is directed by Sam Mendes -- the director of "American Beauty", which is a less-accomplished relative of this film.

Very much recommended.

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