Sam Mendes is quickly becoming the artist who best reminds us that we should be careful what we wish for in life: we spend our youth anticipating and planning out what our adult lifestyle will be, then become disillusioned when we finally reach the goal. Like his films American Beauty and Jarhead, Mendes' Revolutionary Road illustrates the dissatisfaction and impotence that can develop once we achieve what we've been lead to believe is the American Dream.
In public, Frank and April Wheeler are everything considered good about middle class America in the 1950s. They're charming, socially active, and conform to the stereotypes of the ambitious male bread-winner and the happy stay-at-home mother. Inside their home on Revolutionary Road, however, the dynamic is different. Frank and April feel as though they've settled for a lesser lifestyle than they should have; that feeling has caused them to become disconnected and unhappy, but with little insight into how to remedy their emptiness.
From the perspectives of their friends, the Wheelers had it all. From Frank and April's perspective, their life was a miserable failure, the result of conforming and not being true to themselves.
The hopelessness causes each to act out dramatically, creating more and more dysfunction as the years pass. Leonardo DiCaprio looks the part of the 1950s male stereotype, but provides the audience with subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) hints into his personal demons. Kate Winslet is remarkable in acting out the range of April's emotions. Just when the character becomes understood by the audience, another layer of her complex emotional state is revealed and the audience opinion of her changes.
Michael Shannon, who plays a neighbor living with a mental illness, provides the audience with terrific insight into the real dynamic in the Wheeler relationship. (Shannon's short scenes were so powerful he was nominated for an Academy Award.) The couple have all their neighbors fooled, but they can't fool him.
Revolutionary Road isn't a feel-good movie. In fact, it is quite dark and can be uncomfortable to watch. In addition to the incredible acting and direction, however, the film is important in reminding us this: happiness--which is what the American Dream is all about--should be rooted less in conformity and ambition, and be more the result of how true we are to ourselves.