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How to escape the hell of suburbia


Revolutionary Road: 119 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Sam Mendes. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates

Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary RoadThe dog wakes me at 5am, and as for sleep, that's the last of it.

It's not his fault. No doubt a cat has wandered in to the yard, and is taunting him, sitting just beyond the fence, beyond his reach. He's curious and protective; who could begrudge him a bit of yapping?

By the time I've got up, walked outside and shooed the disturbance (it was a cat, licking its paws, indifferent to the din), I'm awake, so I decide to start work. I switch on the home PC and take a seat.

'Bloody suburbs!' I muse, as I begin to type.

I've recently seen Revolutionary Road, a film in which the (1950s American) suburban locale provides an eerie backdrop.

Winslett and DiCaprio portray April and Frank Wheeler, a young couple with marriage problems. They are indeed both fine performances, that capture the nuances of a marriage empty of love, strained by responsibility and the expectations of society, and sickly with the conviction that they are too exceptional for life in the suburbs.

It's the latter that most aroused my attention. The apparent mundaneness of life in the suburbs seems ever ripe for satirical exploitation. It's a theme that always interests me, because I was raised in the 'burbs, and still live there.

Not coincidentally, Revolutionary Road comes from the director of another fable about the decimation of the American dream that, on its release in 1999, stuck sharp in my then late adolescent mind. I had become  disillusioned with what I perceived as the hollowness of life in suburbia. American Beauty, in which suburbia is a purgatory characterised by empty obsession with stuff and niceness, affected me.

In Revolutionary Road, never mind purgatory: suburbia is hell, barbed with tedious career obligations and the demands of parenthood, awash with too-bright light that leaves the skin looking transluscent, and populated with overly-cheerful, deluded demons such as the Wheelers' real estate agent Helen (Baker), for whom a pretty couple in a pretty home is a picture of heaven.

The Wheelers want to flee. The film revolves around their elated plans to sell up, pack their children, and move to Paris, leaving dullness and tedium in their wake. Their acquaintances respond with envy, contempt or clumsily feigned approval. The Wheelers thrill to all three reactions.

They do find one sympathetic confidant, in Helen's son John (Shannon). While Helen is 'upright' and 'decent', John is forthright to a fault and resistant to social expectations, and has thus been called 'insane'. It says much about the world in which the Wheelers' 'revolutionary' decision was made, that John is their sole barracker.

But for the Wheelers, there is no escaping hell. That truism regarding plans 'of mice and men' squirms beneath the surface, so that even dreaming becomes another torture.

Of course, suburbia is not a malicious force. On the other hand, soured love and the failure of communication is poison for a marriage.

Before the title card has even been displayed, in Revolutionary Road this theme is laid bare. The audience is presented with two juxtaposed scenes. The first: a party, and the first meeting and instant attraction between two idealistic youths, Frank and April. The second: a theatre, and April's awful performance in an amateur play.

After the play, Frank (now some time April's husband) is condescending, despite his wife's crushed spirit, and this degenerates to an aggressive altercation, almost to violence. From the outset it is clear: suburbia is not the villain, but a scapegoat upon which to blame an unhappy life. Frank and April are each other's antagonists.

As an adult living in the suburbs, I'm no longer so concerned about supposed mundaneness. It is not suburbia, but disproportionate love of, or dependence upon, its trappings and comforts, at the expense of relationships and community, that is the root of evil.

The dog is barking again. Calmer now, more robust — just clearing his throat. It's light outside, and the neighbourhood is stirring. My wife will be up soon.

I stretch, and spy a cobweb in the corner of the ceiling. Daddy long legs. He never hurt anyone. It's only the attitude you bring that makes a harmless spider seem something to fear.

Revolutionary Road

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.


Topic tags: Revolutionary Road, Same Mendes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates



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Existing comments

Shannon as John is amazing, and stole the film from Winslett and DiCaprio, despite being in only two or three scenes. He is a dark horse for an Oscar this year, although as I said in a previous post I am certain the sentimental vote will see the award go Heath Ledger’s way.

Charles Boy | 05 February 2009  

Onyer, Tim - best review by far of Revolutionary Road that I've read - now I'll go and see the movie.

Carmel Maguire | 05 February 2009  

Yes Tim, as the old saying has it "Two men looked through prison bars, the one saw mud, the other stars." Having less may be a better ideal than having more.

Ray O'Donoghue | 05 February 2009  

Good review. The suburbs are too easy to bash. I left the suburbs to live in France and all the challenges of family and married life came with me. You can leave but you still take yourself with you.

Bronwyn | 05 February 2009  

A review with a difference, and beautifully expressed.

I fell into the same trap. It was a while before I came across a significant poem by the great Greek (from Alexandria), Konstantine Kavafis. 'The City'. The theme is that you can move around as much as you like, but it will always be the same city for you: that is to say, you will ruin your life in the same old way.

Small places can be just as awful as the 'burbs.

Irene | 06 February 2009  

Haven't seen the film yet but will do now. Excellent review and perspective.

Damien | 07 February 2009  

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