One From Sam Mendes: Revolutionary Road

“Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love all over again. This is not that movie.”

– Tagline for “War of The Roses.”

Revolutionary Road” feels more like a horror movie than a romantic drama. It is brutally honest in the way it depicts the terrible disintegration of a marriage, the kind none of us ever want to get trapped in. Those of you who still think gay marriage is a threat to the sanctity of marriage should take a look at this movie, for it is a much more astute examination of what can really destroy such a prized institution. When the movie starts, we know we are in for a fateful journey of two people who at first look like they belong together, but we know they will eventually tear each other apart limb from limb.

But as tough as “Revolutionary Road” is to watch, it is also an utterly brilliant film which serves as further proof of how Sam Mendes’ Oscar win for his directorial debut of “American Beauty” was no fluke. There is not a single false note to be found here, and it feels practically flawless in its making and design. It has great visuals, a great screenplay and amazing performances from the entire cast. Mendes makes “Revolutionary Road” an enthralling experience into the horrors of conformity, the very thing we all try to fight against.

The movie starts with its two main characters, Frank and April (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), when they first meet at a party where they are instantly attracted to each other. The story then moves forward to years later when April is taking a curtain call for a play she is acting in, and she ends up bowing to a very unenthusiastic response from an indifferent audience. It is clear their relationship has gotten cold, and the utter frustration constantly simmering under the surface seem to be the only thing left for them to deal with. This leads to April to come up with what she sees as the perfect plan: They can sell their house and car and move to Paris where she can support Frank through secretarial work while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life. They both see it as their great chance to escape the confines of normalcy which has been eating away at their fragile little souls. However, reality threatens to take away from their dream one piece at a time.

This was Mendes’ fourth film as a director, and you can see a common thread through all his movies. Mendes seems endlessly fascinated with characters whose lives are at a standstill, and who hope for something incredible to happen to them. They are waiting for that moment where they can change into what they always hoped to be, and yet it never quite arrives. In “American Beauty,” it was the characters’ desire to wake up from their dead and dysfunctional lives. In “Road to Perdition,” it was the desire of Tom Hanks’ character to get his son away from the devious life he was leading as a mob enforcer, and to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. In “Jarhead,” it was the desire of the soldiers to enter a war and fight like men, and to take down their enemies by lethal force.

All of this comes around full circle in “Revolutionary Road” as this film deals with characters eager to escape their suffocatingly conformist suburb to live a life of sheer excitement. But they soon come to find they are not as special as they thought they were, and the desires of Frank and April seem to work in opposition to one another. The characters are complex in their creation, and we see what fuels their individual needs, desires, fears and anxieties which serve to define them and their actions. It’s almost like Frank and April are like George and Lenny from “Of Mice and Men;” they are two people hoping to get something they can never truly have, and they constantly delude themselves into thinking all is within their grasp and that their dreams will soon become a reality. But reality comes to rear its ugly head at them, and you know that it ain’t gonna pretty.

In a sense, “Revolutionary Road” can be seen as kind of a distant cousin to “American Beauty” in how it details the suffocating environment of suburban living, but each film approaches this differently. While “American Beauty” dealt with its characters with a dark sense of humor, the environment in “Revolutionary Road” is much bleaker and more consuming. In fact, “American Beauty” seems like a delightful walk in the park compared to this one.

This movie takes place in 1950’s Connecticut, and yet it feels quite contemporary which shows how frighteningly timeless story is. This is what will make the movie hard for many people to watch as they may end up seeing themselves in these two people; the longing for a more exciting existence, for an escape from the suburban way of living which has drained them almost completely of feeling, and to get another chance to get what they truly want out of life.

Along with cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men“) and production designer Kristi Zea (“The Silence of The Lambs”), Mendes perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1950’s to where you feel like you are right in it. He also captures the routine of the life in suburbs and manages to capture some unforgettable moments like when April takes the garbage out to the front of the driveway, and she sees everyone else has placed theirs out in front as well. In this moment, he captures April’s realization of how she and Frank have bought into the resigned way of living they both thought they would somehow avoid. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, but the ugliness of its characters’ frazzled emotions come through to make this seem like anything other than a Norman Rockwell portrait.

In addition, Mendes is served very well by his frequent film composing collaborator, Thomas Newman. While his music score may sound like many of his others, Newman captures the longings of both Frank and April as they tumble through their seemingly mundane existence, and soon end up being driven crazy by it and each other. Throughout all his work, Newman seems to work with music so subtle in how it is performed, and yet so powerful in what it ends up conveying. It’s no accident that Newman also scored Mendes’ “American Beauty” and Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom.” Like Mendes, Newman has a strong feel for life in the suburbs no matter what decade a movie takes place in.

“Revolutionary Road” is really a tremendous acting showcase more than anything else, and I don’t just mean from the two main actors. You have the always wonderful Kathy Bates who plays Mrs. Helen Givings, the endlessly talkative real estate agent who sells Frank and April the home they end up living in. The smile on her bright face serves to hide the pain that we see later as we are introduced to her son who has just been released from a mental institution. You also have the terrific Dylan Baker as Frank’s co-worker, Jack Ordway, a man who endlessly waxes philosophically over the craziness of our existence. David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn are also excellent as the next-door neighbors, Shep and Milly Campbell. The excitement April and Frank have over their plan to go to Paris both enthralls and depresses Shep and Milly, and the way they react to it implies how April and Frank are not the only ones leading lives of quiet desperation.

But one of the true standout performances from the supporting cast comes from Michael Shannon as Helen Giving’s mentally unhinged son, John. In an atmosphere where the truth is felt but never verbalized, John finds himself completely incapable of telling a lie. Essentially, he is a Vulcan like Mr. Spock, but with an overabundance of raw emotion. Through his thoughtlessly cruel remarks to everyone around him, he exposes the seemingly perfect couple and their marriage for the sham it has become, and you can clearly feel his betrayal by these two people who had promised to escape the lifestyle they found themselves so hopelessly trapped in. Shannon’s performance is astonishing in its uninhibited nature as he becomes the voice of reason in a world so full of lies.

This of course brings me to the two main actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. This is the first film they have appeared in together since “Titanic,” but one is very different. It could almost be seen as a story of what happened to Jack and Rose after the big ship sank, assuming Jack survived the freezing waters. Both DiCaprio and Winslet have an incredible chemistry with onscreen, and it seems crazy it took them over 10 years to do another movie together.

DiCaprio continues to prove why he is one of the best film actors of his generation. Throughout the movie, he lets us look past the egotistical nature of Frank Wheeler which allows him to seduce a naïve young secretary (played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan), and to see the pain and fear which threatens to steer him further in a direction he never planned to go in. The relationship he had with his father always seems to be surrounding him in ways which are never fully explained, but we can see how it enforces the decisions he ends up making. Frank clearly cannot stand the job he has as a salesman, but he is also equally terrified of leaving it as he feels he may let down his family in the process. DiCaprio brilliantly captures the complexity of this character whose needs and desires constantly tangle with one other, and whose anger and frustration with life eventually boils over to the only person he can take it out on, his wife.

But as raw and complex as DiCaprio’s role is, he is almost completely blown away by Winslet’s performance. Watching her here, you might think she was in a Lars Von Trier movie. Whereas Frank may have been desperate to escape his mundane existence, April is ten times as desperate to do the same. Her desire to escape the boring life she sold herself out to is never ending, and she can never hide her pain and feelings of hopelessness from those around her. You have to wonder where she gets the energy to do this emotionally exhausting work, and she has more than earned her place in the ever-growing pantheon of great actresses.

“Revolutionary Road” is not the most enjoyable of movies to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be, and this one is not without purpose. We empathize with Frank and April in spite of the way they treat each other because we know all they go through could easily happen to us.

Sam Mendes is one of the best directors working today, and he created another masterpiece of suburban isolation which stands proudly alongside “American Beauty” and “In the Bedroom” among others. It also shows how the term “civil marriage” can seem like the ultimate oxymoron. It goes back to people saying how love is a four-letter word, or that it is a sentence. Frank and April’s story is a tragic one, and probably not a movie to be watched by those who just got engaged.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Equalizer’ Reminds Us Never to Mess with Denzel Washington

The Equalizer movie poster

When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:

“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”

This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.

This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.

There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.

Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.

“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.

Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.

While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.

Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.

You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.

What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.

I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.

* * * out of * * * *