Sunday, 22 February 2009
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Sam Mendes, 2008)
"I Don't Want to Talk About the Wheelers Anymore"
Near the conclusion of Revolutionary Road, there is a brief epilogue to the future, after the Wheelers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) have left their suburban community. Their neighbors are having a drink with the new residents and discussing their former friends. The husband suddenly leaves and walks into their backyard. The wife follows, and the husband says that he doesn't want to talk about the Wheelers anymore. The wife says they don't have to, and the two kiss and embrace. This scene functions as a meta-commentary not only on the film, but on the subsequent critical response. Much of the criticism labeled at the movie concentrates on how much they dislike the two lead characters, who are described as horrible, narcissistic people. The reviews seem not to be about the movie but about the offensiveness of the characters. Reviewers, like the husband next door, do not want to talk about the Wheelers. They do not feel the characters are worthy of their attention and time.
This response is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the vitriol aimed at the Wheelers seems disproportionate. These characters are flawed, but hardly villainous and hardly beyond the realms of realism. Most of this criticism seems very reactionary: they are snobs (read Eastern elites), they are bad parents (although we never really see much with the children, who are simply not the focus of the story), etc. There was even a criticism of the British director Mendes making another film critical of America. Second, these criticisms of the characters neglect the extent to which the Wheelers are both concrete characters and allegorical figures. They have to be placed within the context of the other characters and what they represent to them. However flawed they may be, they also represent something extra-ordinary to those around them.
This distinctive quality of the Wheelers is both admired and feared, both exciting and crazy. They are linked quite clearly with another allegorical character, John Givings, the son of their neighbors who has a PhD in Mathemathics but is also in a mental hospital and deemed insane by the society. He is only in two scenes, one in which he bonds with the Wheelers over their proposed move to Paris, and another in which he criticizes them for turning their backs on their plan, but these scenes are the most distinctive in the film. Dr. Givings serves to comment on the Wheelers, both in their similarities and differences with him. The Wheelers are both revolutionaries and just another middle-class couple. In the terms that would be used in the 60s, they are weekend leftists, not the Weather underground. They play out a very American myth. Paris is a frontier in which to escape the trap of American society, a place of adventure where the limitations of society can be avoided.
All of this allegory is heavy-handed, and certainly the film is not particularly subtle. This is characteristic of Mendes, of whom I am not generally an admirer. But this film, perhaps because of the backlash against it, earns my respect. It is not a masterpiece of directing, but at least Mendes does not rely totally on intensified continuity editing to achieve his effects. The mise-en-scene and cinematography may be overly pronounced, but to hold a shot for over a minute in today's Hollywood is a welcome change. And unlike Mendes' early films, such as American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002), there is no real redemption offered here. This is a film not afraid to end negatively, pessimistically and critically. It is a rare Hollywood film helped rather than hurt by its conclusion. And I suspect it is this lack of a feel-good ending that people are reacting against.
One final note: I have heard a couple of comparsions of Revolutionary Road as a far less interesting take on material covered much better in the AMC television series "Mad Men". While I can understand the comparisons, they are not really fair to the film to say "Mad Men" is "better". What it is, unquestionably, is more entertaining, especially to a male audience. "Mad Men" is a very typical product of our current era. It condemns the characters and at the same time celebrates them as "cool" and "hip". It is both profound and superficial, and makes no real demands or challenges of its audience. Revolutionary Road is harsher medicine; it is much less hip, much less fun, but is certainly no re-tread of material handled better on "Mad Men".