Revolutionary Road: Hopeless Emptiness

I saw Revolutionary Road yesterday.   I am sorry it took me this long to see the movie.   I found it exceptional because it hit so close to home.

I read the movie as a profound social commentary on American life.  I took me beyond my normal feelings to the edge of despair.    The movie opens us up to the madness that lives just below the surface of the American dream.  It reveals it in existential categories.

The passage of the American family is told from the perspective of a couple, the Wheelers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).  It moves from their late youth, where they met over liquor at a post-WWII party, to adulthood.  The passage moves from the hope of youth and young love to disillusionment, and eventually a level of helplessness and emptiness that teeters on being able to be put into words.   The Wheelers are trapped in the same world we are, between powerful social pressures and personal expectations, where sanity lives on the surface and is decided by what people are willing to say and hear.  The whole story is too real for too many people I know.  The tag line of Revolutionary Road says it well, “How do you break free without breaking apart?”

By the end of the movie, its point gets lost if you find peace by pointing blame on either of the characters.    And, this is not incidental.  Pointing blame, of course, is the trap sustaining the illusion of American life.  Whether in a failed relationship, upside down in a house you can’t afford, or politically claiming the moral high ground in a questionable war – a relentless sense of entitlement is ultimately American.   I hope moviegoers don’t escape the power of this moving by going there.   You’ll miss its profound point if you try to escape its despair by putting responsibility for that empty feeling on someone or something else.

If you’ve not seen the movie, Revolutionary Road is the story of a couple, the Wheelers, trying to make sense of their suburban life in the 1950’s.   After saving enough money to risk living their dreams, they plan to move Europe.   From this point, the adventure to find a life worth living – where a man can spend his time doing what he loves and a woman is free to work, if she wants to – begins to crumble.   After redeeming their love for life by seizing the opportunity, Winslet’s character, April Wheeler, reveals that she’s pregnant.  DiCaprio’s character, Frank Wheeler, a hollow man grasping for meaning in an affair while working in the company his father worked for 20 years, is given the chance to take the promotion of a lifetime.   The dream to truly live and move to Europe slowly gives way to insecurities, the insecurities of actually living out their dreams.   Pressures, both personal and social, begin to reveal the fragility of their trust, both in each other and their happiness.  The tragedy unfolds through their relationship, which increasingly fractures with each attempt to salvage it.

I believe the inner structure of the movie is revealed in the character of John Givings (Michael Shannon), a neighbor’s adult son who is purported to be mentally unstable.   John’s mother, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), is desperate over her son’s condition.  Popping in one day, Helen asks the Wheelers to have a visit with her son, John.   The doctor’s believe it might “do him some good.”  His PhD in Mathematics and the fact that he’s on leave from the local psychiatric hospital indicate something of how brilliance coincides with insanity.    John’s character depicts the simultaneity of both reason and absurdity.  This tension sustains the drama of the movie.

On John’s and his parents’ first visit, the exceptionalism of the Wheelers comes through in the grace with which they interact with John.  John’s insanity, if it is truly insane, is his brutal indiscretion with the norms of decency.  Entering the Wheeler’s home, he makes a quip about being a lunatic.   John may be mentally ill by standards, but he’s profoundly aware of the situation he is in.   Given up on appearences, it isn’t long before John begins asking invasive personal questions.  His mother’s attempt to control him bounce off John in his obvious hatred for his mother.  You begin to wonder whether John is a victim of this world, which won’t accept the unacceptable, or he simply understands the absurdity of appearing acceptable.  There are hints that John’s true sin is that he is a prophet of the obvious, a prophet in a mad world that hides its insanity in institutions.    (Michel Foucault!)   What makes the whole scene work is that it’s hard to tell whether John’s psyche has really been torn apart by a toxic mix of his intelligence and his mother’s embarrassment, or by the electroshock therapy he’s received, or whether he simply lacks the skill to to separate what he should and should not say.  It’s undecideable whether he is legitimately mentally deficient because of his inability to sustain social interaction, or whether he is warped by his circumstance…or whether he is the only sane one among them.

The most telling dialogue in the movie happens during a walk in the woods outside the Wheeler’s home.   It is John’s first visit to the Wheelers.   Accompanied by his parents, in a moment of awkwardness Frank suggests they get some “fresh air.”  In their walk, John tears into Frank and April about their plans to go to Europe.   The answer develops into a moment of awkward honesty.  Frank admits the “hopeless emptiness” they are trying to escape.   John’s demeanor immediately becomes less manic, as if he’s stumbled onto a moment of clarity.    It is a moment that haunts the rest of the  movie. 

“And what’s in Paris?” John asks as they walk.

“A different way of life,” April responds.

“So maybe we are running… We’re running from the hopeless emptiness of the whole life here.”  Frank concedes.

John pauses.  “The hopeless emptiness? Now, you’ve said it.  Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness… Wow.”

John continues walking.  Frank and April watch him go.

This scene launches the tragedy that unfolds throughout the rest of the movie.  John seems the only enlightened one.  He possesses both the courage and the knowledge of hopelessness.   And, he keeps going….right back to the psychiatric hospital.   The rest of the movie tells the tragic tale of the road more traveled.  Frank and April go back home.  They never go to Europe.

To say any more would spoil the movie.  I’d rather you watch the movie yourself.

Of course, there are those who won’t see Revolutionary Road as the tragic tail of middle class Americana I do.   It tells it in existential proportions.   This is obvious in the end of the movie, which speaks for itself.   For those who find peace by faulting one of the characters in the movie – either in Frank’s extra-marital affairs and inability to get a grip on his sense of self, or April’s childish fantasies – they, I think, have missed the point.

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