Sam Mendes only does a movie every three years, but when he does, he makes it well worth it. While Jarhead was a bit of a disappointment - primarily due to audience expectations - the director has delivered with such films as American Beauty, Road to Perdition and now Revolutionary Road. Incredible acting combined with a tragic and somber tale of a marriage gone awry make this one of the year's best.
Surprisingly, Revolutionary Road is not being greeted with enthusiasm by a lot of major critics. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, back together for the first time since Titanic, are receiving rave reviews, but the movie itself is not. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter calls the movie, a "didactic, emotionally overblown critique of the soulless suburbs," which is pretty funny since there's nothing overblown about the picture. In fact, this is the most subdued movie of Mendes' career, and its simplest.
Admittedly, Revolutionary Road is not for everyone. The movie is a snapshot of an unhappy couple's marriage. We get to watch this beautiful couple decay and rot from the inside, the festering guilt and anger that is slowly building to a boil generally hidden to their friends and neighbors. Plans sound good until careers, children, mortgages and other obstacles get in the way, and this can be the result.
This is not American Beauty, and that may be what bothers the critics. Mendes kicked off his tremendous career with one of the best movies ever made, and Revolutionary Road does share similarities to that film. Both are set in bland suburbia and explore the doldrums of married life, but whereas Beauty was a glossy, clever and unique satire, Revolutionary Road is a serious and depressing drama. There are no cheerleaders floating on the ceiling or neighbors videotaping floating plastic bags; Revolutionary Road hits closer to home.
The movie is consistently engaging and moving; it quickly draws us into the lives of its characters. It is depressing, but not as much as one would expect; the movie is like watching a car crash in slow motion - you know what's going to happen, but you can't look away. Mendes' direction is outstanding, yet during the picture you'll hardly notice; compared to his other pictures, the film is intentionally less vibrant and visually stimulating. He hands off control to his actors, and they command every scene with amazing intensity.
Both Winslet and DiCaprio are stunning, and the duo deliver the best shared performance of the year. Winslet just won a Golden Globe for her performance, and it's rightfully earned; she continues to show her versatility. Even more impressive is DiCaprio, who turns in his best performance since The Aviator and easily one of the best of his career. Sadly, this actor - who is one of the most engaging and consistent actors in Hollywood - will once again be denied an Oscar due to the likes of Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke, but DiCaprio is absolutely excellent.
The supporting cast is also strong. Kathy Bates, who was also in Titanic, turns in her best performance in over a decade, but it is Michael Shannon who steals the show. His performance will likely be divisive as he almost plays like a surrealistic narrative to the couple's problems, but he is powerful, funny and engaging here. Strangely, I hated Shannon's role in World Trade Center and partially blame him for that film's collapse for, in some ways, playing a similar character; yet in Revolutionary Road, he is perfect. Other supporting cast members deliver great performances as well.
As December approached, I always figured Revolutionary Road would be one of the year's best; but given the so-so critical reception to the picture, my hopes diminished as other films rose up to garner buzz. Thankfully, the critics were wrong. Revolutionary Road is one of the best movies of 2008 and another respectable notch on Mendes' belt.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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