Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road
by Jason Harsin
"Why should the overthrow of the existing order be of vital necessity for people who own, or can hope to own, good clothes, a well-stocked larder, a TV set, a car, a house and so on, all within the existing order?" Herbert Marcuse once pointedly asked before the cornucopia of postwar Western affluence that made talk of revolutionary consciousness seem more and more lunatic even to champions of left traditions. His answer was a complex theorization of consumer society's exploitation of individuals' creative capacities co-opted by organizational culture, office space, and well-paying-enough industrial work. The consumer society underwritten by the state and widespread ideologies of liberal freedom result in a condition of consuming objects as a substitute for unconstrained human creativity.
Marcuse further objects:"Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear-that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls." How one develops a consciousness of these repressive forces and one's complicity with them is a more difficult question yet. But Marcuse, like others, seemed to think that art and the occasional crises of everyday life, led by the ironic enlightened position of a band of "outcasts and outsiders" held the possibility of revolutionary change and liberation from this sad state of affairs.
In the spirit of Marcuse, as well as other eminent theorists—such as Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists—of everyday life, freedom and exploitation under consumer capitalism, Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road is a dramatic critique of alienation and co-optation of creative, free activity in liberal democratic consumer societies. While Revolutionary Road has the actors, production qualities, and several narrative tendencies of Hollywood dramas, it is vintage Sam Mendes: a critique of historical gender roles, deadening routines, lost dreams and values, and the uncompromisingly conformist American suburbs, which are themselves captive of a larger cultural psychosis.
Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio: the great reunion. This was part of the marketing campaign in reference to the epochal Titanic, now over a decade old. which starred this same duo. Both actors have matured since then across art and offbeat Hollywood films, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to Gangs of New York, and Total Eclipse. Now under the direction of Sam Mendes, Winslett and DiCaprio reunite for a markedly Mendesesque tour de force. Like the Oscar-winning American Beauty, Mendes's follow up identifies with the misfits in the suburbs to make a larger critical statement about the iron cage of American culture, the golden bars of its complacency, and the danger of breaking out—indeed, of the very dream of breaking out.
Such a critical stance toward American culture places the film in a venerable artistic tradition that is The American Dream. The film is saturated with the tropes of American Dream literature. The readers of that depressing tradition immediately recall Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt;Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night; Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman; J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye; and John Updike's Rabbit, Run, among others. One thinks of the sociological complements in The Organization Man, The Status Seekers, The Image, The Theory of The Leisure Class, and One-Dimensional Man. There's the dream of actor-stardom and the alcoholic lifestyle depicted by some of them, the obsession with "phoniness" required for mobility, and deviance met by ruthless punishment by the status quo present in all of them.
Winslett and DiCaprio play a slightly offbeat couple, April and Frank Wheeler, from the fundamental opening scene where they meet at a party, apparently part of the theater crowd. Winslett becomes a failed actress-become-housewife; Frank a stifled-creative type-become-sales-department-support staffer. Like the American Dream literature, Revolutionary Road shows the American cultural mercilessness toward those who do not conform, who live at the end of the decidedly un-revolutionary road, and start out into the woods to blaze their own trail. That divergence makes all the difference, but the difference is a tragic one.
However, this film is not just about America, any more than Max Weber's iron cage is only about German modernity, or Foucault's Discipline and Punish is about contemporary France. The condition is somewhat representative of the individual living in all Western liberal democratic consumer societies, despite their comparative nuances. That condition is one that paradoxically celebrates the freedom of the individual to do and say what he/she wants within a social structure that embraces some form of consumer capitalism, where "feeling" the elan vitale is reduced to the commonality of having a spouse, a house in the ‘burbs, a relatively new car, children, a "good" job (white collar), and the dream of having more--of all of this, and with no other goal than the inherent cultural good of having all this. Somehow, it leaves a few stragglers "empty." Where there is power, there is also resistance, said the philosopher Foucault.
Again and again, Frank talks about wanting to really "feel alive." He hasn't been able, for various reasons, to find himself, but within him a creative impulse is banging to be let out. In much of the West, one might refer to it with some repugnance as "artsy," or "irresponsible," unrealistic, and whimsical, as does the realtor-neighbor, a middle-aged 50s predecessor of American Beauty's Annette Benning's character played adeptly by Kathy Bates).
But Frank wants out, and partly blames his wife and kids (though she is the repository of outward blame) for "forcing" him into the classic 50s breadwinner role.
Frank's entire office (somtimes like the playful reflections of the film Office Space and TV series The Office--what does it tell us that our culture is producing these "minor" responses) is characterized by people who find their jobs meaningless yet essential to the institutional setting. Frank goes on hating his job, and April starts to hate him and her boring suburban-housewife life. She once had other dreams, and their lack of fulfillment, like his, obtrudes on their relationship. Their marriage on the brink, April wistfully rummages through a box of old photos, as if to magically escape the suffocating outside reality by slipping into the portal of a picture world. Alas, she alights upon a photo of Frank, fresh from the allied battlefront in France, a postcard-esque shot with his comrade and the Eiffel Tower as backdrop. "You always talked about how Paris was the one place you've been where you'd like to go back," she cries, like a condemned criminal supplicating her jurors. "We always thought we were better than this," she says in a moment of poignant truth, "but the fact is we aren't; we're just like them." On that provocative note, they resolve that this is their chance to flee the coop. They will sell the house and car, take the kids and their seven grand in savings, and move to Paris where she will find a dreamy high-paid job as a secretary for NATO (clearly preceding Charles DeGaulle) while Frank will discover his creative being within. It's as if April's American suburban alienation will be overcome through a new workplace alienation that will somehow be liberated by the surrounding French culture. There's also no sense that Frank will be taking care of the kids while April's pecking away on the French office typewriter. In this sense, the plan does seem naively escapist.
The neighbors and the officemates unsurprisingly find the plan "whimsical" and "unrealistic," but more for giving up Franks' job and the shamefulness of being supported by his wife, in France of all places. The couple is resolved, however, that they're above these drones.
The brutal recalcitrance of cultural power proves too much for this escape plan when April announces that she's pregnant. This news combined with a tempting offer for promotion to some sort of salesman for the pioneering new office computer business and the haunting memory of his patently mediocre salesman father are enough to spawn Frank's rationalizations that "We can be happy here." April's rational arguments to the contrary are to no avail, which results in her realization that she no longer loves Frank. In Mendes' unhappy hands, this can not end well. The unwanted baby, the unwanted promotion, the unwanted future leaves few escape routes for this 1950s housewife. And there's every indication that Frank's new job, bigger salary and house will eventually result in the same emptiness. As in American Beauty, Mendes (and this time screenwriter Justin Haythe) make their exaggerated point through a culminating death. Unsympathetic viewers will surely find it overly dramatic, but then this is part of the depressing and suicidal American Dream tradition represented by Miller’s Willy Loman. Why depart from a venerable tradition? Power/resistance are also paired with sanity/insanity. The Shakespearean idiot savant in the film is played by the neighbors the Givings' "insane" son John, a Ph.D. in mathematics being treated for depression with shock treatment.
"Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness," he says with no little foreshadowing, "but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness." That about says it. In Mendes's view, the price of even questioning this system is precarious mentally. The personal is cultural, for that mental health is partly conditioned in relation to how the community and its institutions treat the individual. John the fool appears again to comment on Frank's cold feet, again quite lucidly: "You want to play house you got to have a job. You want to play nice house, very sweet house, you got to have a job you don't like." While Frank recognized John as a sage on John's first visit, he is now pushed to the brink of violence, telling John, like the chorus of his society, he is insane and should go back to the "loony bin." When April dies, the neighbors speak of how Frank now spends any second away from work with his children. At first glance this could strike the viewer as magnanimous. On the other hand, it can be read as not just rising to the occasion of exemplary caring single parent; but rather as escape from the emptiness of work and the empty culture of consumption, with its alcoholic, rock n' roll, and adulterous props. It's one form of rebellion the culture will permit.
Mendes is superb at sketching the cultural pressure to conform, to act pleased to be part of the group, the organization, and at the costs that await those who resist it all. One could say that he is as merciless in his critique of this culture as the culture can be merciless in its treatment of misfits (which here doesn't even consist in a visual refusal of norms, as, say, Punk style would later). What Mendes (unlike the best sociologists, novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers) still hasn't been able to do, is go beyond describing social reproduction and focus on what produces these misfits. Why are the Wheelers seen to be exceptional? Why do they feel different? Why do they have desires that push them to question and want something else--symbolized by the imagined otherness of Paris? Mendes leaves us with few clues besides a child's inability to identify with parents at what the psychologist Erik Erikson once called the "formal operational" thinking level of teenagers (Frank's near disgust for his "old man's" submission to an empty job and life). April is even more of a mystery, with her pipedream of becoming a star actress. Is it too many movies and too much press about the glamorous life of stars, making her a Madame Bovary of the American 1950s?
Perhaps there is a particular contradiction in the U.S., with its time-honored clichés of freedom, opportunity, rags-to-riches, and self-made men--already mentioned in its literature, film, and sociology. But finally, is this not a fate that faces millions in America and out, if they be so bold to face it? What one can do with a life is the existential question. What one can do here and now, is the more historical, sociological, and cultural one. After all, we can not all be adored actors, film critics and media professors, and actors, film critics and media professors must also sometimes find their systemic obligations and routines--well, somewhat empty. What one can be once one questions the structures within which one is is almost as terrifying a situation as what one is without questioning the structures within which one can be.
Jayson Harsin is Assistant Professor, The American University of Paris.