'Revolutionary Road': Awash in dry martinis and 1950s despair

Sam Mendes film captures a marriage falling apart

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The love and passion of the marriage of Frank and April Wheeler, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, isn't enough to overcome the trap of their Fifties suburban existence in "Revolutionary Road."

Suburban limbo little defense against 'hopeless emptiness' of Fifties life

By Anne Kirby

Wedged between two intense decades - the 1940s where Americans united to fight World War II, and the 1960s where a liberal elasticity expressed itself through men and women who reshaped American ideals of religion and marriage through progressive concepts of birth control, gay rights, and personal fulfillment - the 1950's decade was the un-intensive middle ground.

In his film "Revolutionary Road," Sam Mendes brings us back to the Fifties through a psychological and introspective looking glass. His film probes the lives of a young American couple as they navigate through the emotional waters of conformity and moral suppression which they know is shackling many Americans to the bedrock of uniformity.

Stagnation resulted from America's fear of communism and its post-war craving for security, which flourished under the veil of conformity.

Nothing expressed this conservative ethos more than the temporary limbos of the American suburbs, where people's emotions and imaginations were trapped as they subjugated themselves to gods of denial, rationalization and moral judgment.

These three oppressions condensed the American spirit into a one-size-fits-all mentality and a convenient demographic that fed American corporate growth.

In his film "Revolutionary Road," Sam Mendes brings us back to the Fifties through a psychological and introspective looking glass. His film probes the lives of a young American couple as they navigate through the emotional waters of conformity and moral suppression which they know is shackling many Americans to the bedrock of uniformity.

Mendes's film is based upon the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Viewing the Fifties as a time when America's revolutionary spirit of open-minded, individualized thinking was non-existent, if not altogether dead, Yates anxiously felt the paradoxical inconsistencies that made this decade stand out in stark contrast to former, livelier, decades.

Marriage begins with high hopes

April Wheeler, played by Kate Winslet, married Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) for two reasons - he made her laugh and more importantly, he possessed an emotional honesty that endeared him to her. Frank was different and he stood out, like herself, as a special individual who had an unusual spark of originality.

On the day that Frank confessed to April that what he really wanted in life more than anything else was "... to feel things, really feel things" their destiny and marriage were signed and sealed.
But what the marriage delivers is the stuff that makes Mendes' film significant, if not enjoyable.

Through simple, whitewashed settings, we view the more complex 1950s through the Wheelers' eroding marriage. Their hopes and dreams grew out of the false visions and fanatic premises that were shared by an entire generation of couples who bought into a postwar convention of abandoning the city to raise their kids in picture-perfect suburbs of New York and Connecticut.

For a time, life is good for the Wheelers. They settle into a comfortable Westchester County suburban home, decorated in a cool and palliative 1950s modern, and produce two perfectly healthy, blond-haired, blue-eyed children along the way.

April establishes herself in a local community acting troupe while Frank joins the ranks of the gray-suited men who ride the commuter rails into corporate city jobs where they sip dry martinis at lunch and indulge their libidos upon a pool of demure and sultry secretaries who fuss over them and their offices.

At night, this same army of gray soldiers travels back to the suburbs where they enjoy their wives and children who anxiously await them.

For women as intuitive and strong-minded as April Wheeler, the Fifties provided few channels for self-fulfillment and fewer outlets for intrinsic happiness.

Through good looks and visible displays of bohemian finesse, the Wheelers acquire the neighborhood status as "perfect couple."

It is this is type of stereotypical labeling that defines what Yates saw as the collective, conformist mentality of the 1950s generation, where people willingly submitted themselves to iconic and symbolic concepts such as perfect home, perfect couple and perfect life.

Paradoxically, it brings about an imperfect and oppressive existence of conformity, denial and suppressed emotions that were regularly tuned up by cocktail parties, martinis and office flings.

For women as intuitive and strong-minded as April, the Fifties provided few channels for self-fulfillment and fewer outlets for intrinsic happiness.

Tension fills the Wheelers' relationship

Roles were great if you could get them. And when April's acting group suddenly disbands - on the basis of failing reviews and the jealously of her unsupportive, community peers - she is transformed into a deep abyss of self-absorption that is magnified by her aloof and smoldering anger towards Frank.

Through earnest attempts to revive her spirits, Frank is unable to reach her and an overwhelming tension soon dominates the space between them.

Shortly afterward, April takes her first step into conformity when she meticulously resurfaces to face her domestic duties, which appear to be just a bit too meticulous and robotic in her effect.

Acting as if nothing has transpired, it is subtely, yet patently clear that April is losing some of  her spring-like spontaneity.  Slowly withering,  through feelings of despair and loneliness, April is alone and without emotional support.  Though she feels betrayed by life, she becomes possessed with  fantasises as she perceives reality as her prison and the enemy she must defeat. 

 And while Frank is going through fears of his own - working a routine and monotonous job at the same company where, coincidentally, his Dad spent his life behind a desk awaiting a possible promotion - his inability to embrace  April drives him into a lunchtime affair that develops after he cajoles a sweet, young secretary into bed with the help of dry martinis.

In a genuine attempt to improve her family's life,  April and her two children plan a a typical surprise birthday party for Frank.  Meeting him at the front door, the party is more like a gult trip for Frank who arrives home late after spending  a long afternoon romancing a sweet, young secretary.

Unable to put words to feelings, the couple's emotions smolder behind frustrated facades and  the truths of their life which they sense yet cannot quite reach nor understand.  Unable to cope, April and Frank are ceremoniously locked out of each other's lives.

Frank's  feelings are sublimated when he is enticed into believing that his boss is about to reward him for one of his innovative "inventory delivery' ideas through hints of a promising promotion.

A plan to escape to Paris

Knowing this April's fears rise as she senses that Frank is selling out on his promise to go through with her well-intentioned, yet flawed, plan to leave his job and move to Paris.  Here,  April plans to support the family so that Frank can find himself anew in the bohemian streets of Paris.

Over dry martinis with a neighborhood couple, the Wheelers share their excitement about their proprosed, plan of escape.  Through their shocked disbelief  it is clear that the Wheelers have assaulted the very core of the couple's life.  It is as if the Wheelers deliberately foisted a jigsaw puzzle piece upon them which they, the couple, could not possibly fit into their closed-minded, nicely packaged puzzle of suburban perfection.

In an Oscar-nominated performance, Michael Shannon plays John Givings, the outspoken, manic-depressive son of the Wheelers' real estate agent. Givings obsessively, and inconveniently, describes the dangerous realities that everyone around him is trying to ignore.

In a series of sobering scenes, April and Frank meet the mentally ill, "certified" son of their overbearing real estate agent. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Michael Shannon plays John Givings, the outspoken, manic-depressive son of the agent (precisely played by Katherine Bates) who obsessively, and inconveniently, describes the dangerous realities that everyone around him is trying to ignore.

The victimized son of a dominating mother, he is the Greek chorus who confirms April and Frank's greatest fears through his oracle of "hopeless emptiness."

Desperate and unable to bury her emotions any longer, April becomes completely devastated when she discovers that she is pregnant.

Her plan to end the pregnancy and revive her plan of  living abroad is countered when Frank discovers her intentions.  April retreats deep inside herself once more.  Like a transfixed zombie, her emotional denial is symbolized through a ritualized act of meticulous domesticity - a drug that makes her flat-line and devoid of all feeling. 

April's inability to separate her fantasies of life from the 1950s reality she faces leaves her hopeless.  All she sees ahead is the "emptiness" of John Givings recent message.

In the end April selfishly, yet unknowingly, defers to the only choice she sees  is left her.  As she follows though on this, her final plan,  April pardoxically proves what she knew along -- she must, at all costs,  live the life she wants rather than the lie she sees in Fifties reality.

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A conversation with an intelligent yet mentally ill man in the woods outside their suburban home brings home hard truths to the Wheelers.

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