Whether mad, sad or bad, dad stories make good films when entrusted to Sam Mendes.
Mendes’s multiple-award winning American Beauty (1999) stars Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham who is 42, frustrated, and besotted with his daughter’s teenage friend. Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel Road to Perdition (2002), adapted for the screen and feted for its cinematography, shows gangster fathers John Rooney (Paul Newman) and Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) each struggling to protect a son.
In Mendes’s 2008 adaptation of Richard Yates’s posthumously acknowledged masterpiece Revolutionary Road, Earl Wheeler, the late, nondescript father of Frank (outstandingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio), still has a hold over his son. Earl had once been a salesman at Knox, the same company where Frank, pushing 30, now holds an executive position. Swamped in middle-class inertia, cursing the dullness of his days, Frank nevertheless feels he is paying “fine tribute” to his father by working in the same company.
When he had been a longshoreman in New York, Frank had fallen in love and married April Johnson (the irreplaceable Kate Winslet). She is “a first rate girl” who refuses to live a second rate life. A drama student when they first met at a party, April is now a failed actress and the mother of Frank’s two children. She believes that Connecticut suburban living has trapped her in mediocrity and that she, like Frank, deserves better things. If they acknowledge their current stagnation and take a chance and move to Paris, where she knows Frank had been his happiest, he would be the apotheosis of the manhood she had once loved. In Paris, “or anywhere but here,” April feels they will validate their birthright to be “special.” In short, that their lives will be what novelist Richard Ford terms “blissfully rudderless”.
Apparently, all it needs is “backbone” to turn pipe dreams into reality. The collision of April’s narcissistic delusions against Frank’s stodgy pragmatism makes them drag each other down a devastating cul de sac. Yates’s nuanced turn of phrase paints a bitter portrait of an era (the mid-1950s known as America’s Age of Anxiety), a community and a marriage, but Mendes’s film focuses more on the quarter life crisis of the Wheelers who could be any couple at any period of time.
Whether lovers on a sinking ship (Titanic) or spouses in a sinking marriage, DiCaprio and Winslet make an incandescent screen pair. As Frank Wheeler spatting at home with his wife, DiCaprio agitates his boyish features to coalesce in ugly acrimony. But at office, his muscles relax, he smiles and wows his wide-eyed young secretary into an affair.
Though not quite as neurotic as Yates would have her, April’s “enigmatic aloofness” is perfectly played by Winslet. There is a magnificent scene of stasis, where she is as wintry as death itself. Superb performances also come from supporting actors Michael Shannon, whose function is akin to a wise Fool in Shakespearean drama, Kathy Bates as his mother, and Dylan Baker as Frank’s senior colleague.
Screenplay writer Justin Haythe uses almost verbatim dialogue from the novel, and Mendes’s efforts to keep to Yates’s depictions of lifestyle are ingenuous. Everyone smokes and drinks excessively, men talk jobs and money, women whip up delectable salads, and lives are steady behind picture windows smiling on freshly sprinkled lawns. We can see for ourselves just why “a man running down these streets in desperate grief” would be “indecently out of place”.
Costumes and colours add to Kristy Zea’s production design and illustrate what Mendes calls “mouth watering descriptions” from Yates’s text. Unforgettable are the back-to-back scenes of loneliness – Frank losing his individuality in a grey-suited sea of commuters and April standing alone on a sunny street pockmarked with garbage cans.
Typical of all Mendes’s films, the lighting (by veteran director of photography Roger Deakins) wistfully punctuates the story. The sun dipping behind the house signifying the last of good family times, the smoky blue of an expensive restaurant where men munch their lunch, the burnt red haze of the cheap discotheque where April drinks herself into a drunken dalliance, the harsh look of empty rooms before the all too quiet and nerve wracking breakfast scene – none of these visuals can go unnoticed.
Long before his volatile stage version of the greatest dad story of all (Shakespeare’s King Lear for National Theatre Live in 2014), Mendes had been autographing his films with a style of “stripping away” all the comforts that cocoon characters in their contexts. In Revolutionary Road, Yates’s stinging dialogue lacerates the fetid Wheeler home and harrowed faces with tired eyes show us a marriage in freefall. The house slides into disarray. Children are bundled out of sight and almost pushed out of mind. Then suddenly everything is still, too perfect, and an inexorable, chilling crisis is ushered in.
The film is made of riveting moments, but is somewhat ponderous and belaboured as a whole. With a running time of almost two hours and featuring at least six relevant characters, the fetish to give almost everyone equal screen time is excessive. Claustrophobic as the story of “hopeless emptiness” is, predictable close-ups further drag the pace. What a reader misses more than a viewer is the honesty of back stories as characters rescind into their crumbling inner worlds. The stain of “quiet desperation” that spreads beneath the fine weave of the text makes April courageous, not dramatic.
Yates cuts Frank loose, but our hopes are restored by Mendes, who signs Frank up as a sad, bad, but good dad and earns another clutch of nominations and awards.