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 * * * *

‘Red Sparrow’ Thrives on the Presence of Jennifer Lawrence

Red Sparrow movie poster

I will be curious to see what audiences will have to say about “Red Sparrow” after seeing it. Those expecting a Jason Bourne-like adventure or something along the lines of “Salt” which starred Angelina Jolie as a sleeper spy may be disappointed as this film feels more like an adaptation of a John Le Carre novel where the lives of spies are not the least bit romanticized. The movie itself is based on the book of the same name by Jason Matthews who, like Le Carre, was once a member of an intelligence agency. What results is a motion picture which is not as interested in gunfights or car chases as it is in the mind games spies play with one another as the art of manipulation becomes a far more powerful weapon than a bullet. It also serves as yet another reminder of how Jennifer Lawrence is one of the best things in movies these days as she sucks you right into her gaze and never lets you go.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a gifted Russian dancer who suffers a career-ending injury at the movie’s start. With her dancing now a thing of the past, she and her mother find their future looking particularly bleak as the loss of their apartment and medical care become imminent. As a result, she accepts an invitation from her loving but undeniably devious uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), to work for Russian intelligence. But whereas most spy movies see recruits being trained in the ways of martial arts and weaponry, the recruits we see here are instead trained in the ways of manipulation. Or, more specifically, sexual manipulation.

The scenes where we see Dominika and others being trained in the ways of manipulation help make “Red Sparrow” stand out among other spy movies as I can’t remember many which see new recruits being made to use their minds and bodies as weapons. Heck, the only one I can think of like it is “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” and that film came out back in the 1980’s. As the Headmistress of the spy training school, Charlotte Rampling gives us a passive aggressive version of the sadistic drill instructor from “Full Metal Jacket” as she forces her students into situations which will test their mental defenses instead of their physical ones. We never see her raise her voice or yell at her pupils, but this is because Rampling makes it clear why she doesn’t need to do so. You can question her, but she will make you see why you shouldn’t have in the first place.

Once “Red Sparrow” moves from the school and into Dominika’s mission which involves her meeting up with CIA agent Nathaniel “Nate” Nash (Joel Edgerton), the story enters into familiar territory as we watch these two spies from different countries fall for one another in a way which goes against their training. Still, it’s fascinating to watch Lawrence and Edgerton test one another as each try to crack through the mental they have built to protect themselves. It reminded me of when James Bond went head to head with Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale” as each tried to learn more about the other. Both kept their guard up as they wondered who would break first.

Ever since her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” Lawrence has proven to be an amazing talent as she brings a natural charisma and a raw energy few others can these days. Her work in “Red Sparrow” is no exception as she kept my eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. Seeing her go from a gifted ballerina to a methodical agent is mesmerizing as Dominika looks to get the upper hand in each situation she gets thrust into, and Lawrence nails each note of her character while maintaining a Russian accent which doesn’t fail her. She is not out to give us another variation on Katniss Everdeen here as the character of Dominika takes this acress down a road she has not traveled down before.

Speaking of Katniss Everdeen, “Red Sparrow” was directed by “The Hunger Games’” Francis Lawrence, and he certainly knows how to get the best out of his leading actress. In addition, he also keeps a solid level of tension flowing throughout. Yes, the movie does run a little too long, and the torture scenes we see pale in comparison to those in spy movies of the past. Heck, a similar torture scene in “Casino Royale” was far more painful to endure, and that 007 adventure was PG-13. Still, Francis gets plenty of mileage out of the mind games each character plays on the other.

It’s impossible not to think about the #MeToo movement while watching “Red Sparrow” as Lawrence is greeted with brutal assaults on her character by men prepared to take what they want without anything resembling remorse. Like Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” her character of Dominika is forced to exist in a male-dominated world which leaves everyone of her gender little in the way of options, something which needs to change now. This makes the character’s revenge all the more fulfilling as she puts those men in their place in sometimes painful ways. Of course, this will most likely make “Red Sparrow” harder to sit through for many audience members.

“Red Sparrow” does have its flaws, and its conclusion is not as fulfilling as I thought it would be, but I find it impossible to deny the compelling effect it had on me overall. And again, Jennifer Lawrence reminds us why she is one of the most enthralling actors working in movies today. She dares you to look into her eyes to see if you could possibly find your way into her soul. Even as the movie goes through the familiar tropes of the spy movie genre, the Oscar winner keeps us watching her every move.

They say the truth shall set you free, but in the world of “Red Sparrow,” the truth is likely to get you killed. Realizing this reminds me of the Depeche Mode song “Should Be Higher” as David Gahan sung about how “lies are more attractive than the truth.” For Dominika and Nate, their lies have to be. Or do they?

* * * out of * * * *