I screened Revolutionary Road this week, somewhat reluctantly after being spoiled Monday by one of those vanity cards from TV showrunner Chuck Lorre. (He sums up 10 films currently in the mix as Oscar bait. If you want to go fresh-of-mind into this movie, Gran Torino, or Rachel Getting Married, then DON'T click here.)
I expected a slow and methodical deterioration of a marriage, but the actual pace is a bit more brisk. The opening scenes juxtapose an optimistic past with a pessimistic present (1955), where both Frank Wheeler (Leo!) and wife April (Kate!) have soured on the reality of their sedate surroundings. But that's about all they have in common. Even in their most blissful moments, one spouse is only buying into the argument or vision of the other, so they're never at harmony. Then, when disagreement sets in, things get ugly. And depressing.
As a straightforward depiction of marital strife in the Eisenhower era, the film does not work. It looks like it should, but it just doesn't. So I decided to view it instead as a two-character psychological drama, where everyone else is a figment of their imagination, and it started to make more sense to me. The couple have children who are rarely present. Frank's coworkers (including Dylan Baker and Jay O. Sanders) seem to be whispering in his ear, reinforcing his attachment to socioeconomic conventions. Their realtor (Kathy Bates) is a less a character than a silly reminder of suburban propriety. To the film's credit, it has just enough of these oddities to make me wonder if that approach is intended.
I should mention the most unusual element of Revolutionary Road: the once-institutionalized academic son of the realtor, who pops up in two scenes as pure id, a verbal force of nature. As played by Michael Shannon, it's easy to say that he steals the movie. He's free to speak his (frayed) mind, and does so with more bluntness than possibly any character in the recent history of cinema. His perspective is so far removed as to seem anachronistic. He serves as the centerpiece of a film that veers away from the strange and into the positively mental.