“What happens to a dream deferred,” Langston Hughes once wondered. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet?‚Äù
‚ÄúMaybe it just sags,‚Äù Hughes wrote, ‚Äúlike a heavy load. Or does it explode?‚Äù
Hughes wasn‚Äôt talking about bored and perhaps boring white suburbanites trapped in the perfect storybook of a life, though. Surely that must make the minor dreams of April Wheeler less so, perhaps even ridiculous by comparison. But the question must be asked anyway, what happens to a dream deferred?
Revolutionary Road is about two people who have to believe that there is more to life than what they‚Äôve signed up for – the perfect house, the two kids, good looks, a decent job. What is it they want that they don‚Äôt have? If you ask author Richard Yates it might be that innate, unshakable desire to live out the American dream because so many that came before us died earning their freedom to do just that. It isn‚Äôt enough to be good. One has to be great.
But the thing many of us learn as we stumble through life is that there are no guarantees. We are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The key word is pursuit. We are predetermined to always be chasing after that elusive conclusion to our lives: we will one day ‚Äúbe happy.‚Äù At a certain point almost everyone realizes that happiness is not wholly attainable; happiness comes and goes like the seasons, only not as predictably and without the pretty pictures. We learn to live with and without everything that goes along with it.
Mostly, though, we are all destined to decades of longing for those things we don‚Äôt have, the wives we never married, the trip we never took, the car that so and so just bought, the attention that so and so is getting, when is it MY turn, why can‚Äôt I have THAT. Longing is so much a part of us that when we finally do get what we‚Äôve always dreamed of most of the time we don‚Äôt want it anyway. After all, we were able to acquire it so it must not be worth much.
Richard Yates has said that the title comes from this idea that at the end of the long road after the American Revolution this is where we end up; the American Dream is nothing more than a bubble of hope, a collection of dreams deferred. That theme threads neatly through the Mendes film but because of the explosive relationship between Frank and April as interpreted by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio you have a film that is more about two people, a marriage, a toxic relationship.
In Edward Albee‚Äôs Who‚Äôs Afraid of Virginia Woolf you have two characters, George and Martha – the mother and father of our country, if you choose that interpretation. And much the way that film became a filter of irony as to life here in America, so does Revolutionary Road expose a flaw in the perfect American life.
The Wheelers symbolize the ideal couple in the ideal home with the perfect kids. The horrendous fights between them is never witnessed by neighbors. What happens inside stays inside. When the lights are flicked on everything seems almost normal. Then comes the beer, the wine, the whisky, the light dims and the monsters come.
You probably won‚Äôt find two better performances this year than those of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, and with the likes of Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt‚Äôs extraordinary turn this year as Benjamin Button, that is saying quite a lot – but the reason for this is that the two together are like fire and gasoline. Old friends who trust each other seem to have no barriers. Sam Mendes, with a background in theater, gave them room for exploration. Funnily enough, Blanchett and Pitt worked well for similar reasons — good friends, not lovers in real life.
That doesn‚Äôt mean they‚Äôll win Oscars. Kate should win, though, for this performance and for all the others she didn‚Äôt win. She is well practiced at playing exuberant just this side of crazy.¬† But here, she has peeled herself off layer by layer with precision; this isn‚Äôt sloppy work. She aims, she shoots. The first time we see her, walking into the makeup room and looking not at herself in the mirror but at her husband to see his reaction that to the horror that just took place on stage.
She looks at him with so many things going on in her face at once – disappointment mixed with approval-seeking mixed with shame mixed with anger. It is just a look but it says so much.¬†¬† The next scene is her hard heels on the high school hallway, clack clack clack clack – so loud and out of place. There‚Äôs nothing to say until they are alone in the car, in the darkness and no one can see them for what they really are. No longer the glamorous and perfectly held together Wheelers but a collection of mistakes, inbred fury and regret.
In the film April has only one hope of escaping her own life. She believes that she and Frank can opt out of the American dream and move the family to Paris so Frank can find out who he really is. She really believes this to be the thing that will rescue them. For a while they are ‚Äúhappy‚Äù again. But things don‚Äôt quite turn out that way. Real life rears its ugly head and the moment April feels like there is no way out that is when she implodes.
DiCaprio as Frank Wheeler doesn‚Äôt have to delve as deeply as Winslet but he is there to react to her. His world is pieced together, illusion by illusion, and he‚Äôd be content living the typical, hypocritical life of the American male in the pre-feminist 60s – the office, the mistress, the booze, the suits. His wife is hurting, though, because in many ways she is the one living out the illusion all alone in her pretty house with her perfect kids. In that way it‚Äôs a lot like Mad Men but the characters in the TV series aren‚Äôt shattering illusions, not yet anyway.
Michael Shannon plays the film‚Äôs only literally ‚Äúcrazy‚Äù person. He‚Äôs received shock therapy numerous times and can‚Äôt control his anger or his verbal attacks on anyone he meets. He is the only person who speaks the truth about what he sees in the lives of the Wheelers. Does that make him happy? Nope. Does that make him sane? Nope.
He douses the atmosphere with enough crazy that soon the Wheelers find they can‚Äôt pretend anymore, especially April who begins to crumple.
Kathy Bates is perfect as the kindly lady who so admires the perfect Wheelers and their perfect little house. She has some of the film‚Äôs best lines and it‚Äôs funny to see her with DiCaprio and Winslet all over again.
One of the odd things about the film is the absence of the children in almost every scene. It is clear that they don‚Äôt exist except as set pieces. Who are they, anyway? What will become of them? Again, this echoes Virginia Woolf, where children loom large because George and Martha couldn‚Äôt have any.
That makes Revolutionary Road a tough film to connect with; we‚Äôre not to admire these people so much as to pity them. And maybe pity those weak aspects of our character. What we throw away every day is exactly what matters most in the end.
It‚Äôs rough going, to be sure, but it is as beautiful as it is hard to watch. It has the techs nailed down – Roger Deakins’ breathtaking cinematography, the costumes, the art direction, the score, none of which upstage the story or the acting.