It may be, as Thoreau said, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but in the movies, desperation is much more likely to be loud. “Revolutionary Road” is another movie about unhappiness, phoniness, and corrosive dysfunction behind the manicured lawns of suburbia story from Sam Mendes of American Beauty. This time, it is set just after WWII, based on the novel by Richard Yates. It is the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), a couple who are devastated to find themselves unable to escape the stultification of conventional middle class lives and who respond by devastating each other.
There is a moment for each of us, when we begin to see outside everything we have known and start to think of something different for ourselves, confident that we can avoid the mistakes of our parents and their generation. And then there is another moment when we learn that it is not that easy. This notion of exceptionalism, whether at the personal or national level, is the question these characters must face.
And it is that issue that gives this film its power. Yes, it is beautifully observed detail, rich images, and brilliant, fearless performances and yes, it has a scathing portrayal of the foul rot beneath the superficial suburban prettiness, with only a madman who can tell the truth. But all of that has been done before and these stories themselves tend to risk an aura of smug, we’re-in-on-the-real-story superiority that is as artificial as the lives it is dissecting. What makes this story transcend its setting is the resonance it has with the notion of America’s own sense of its exceptionalism in the world and in history.