Despair rarely knocks.
It steals inside when you're looking away, hiding at first, growing bolder by inches. Then, one day, you see it—cold, obvious, like a February front—and you wonder how long it's been there.
We're not sure when despair took up residence in the Wheeler home. We know only that it came, and that it seems set to stay. Frank Wheeler, once a young vagabond with a yen for adventure, now trundles to work every day in a coat, tie and hat, pushing papers in 1950s-era cubicleville. April Wheeler, once an aspiring actress, now cooks, cleans and takes out the trash. Their house is spotless, the lawn green, the children reliably adorable.
But neither Frank nor April is happy. Pricked by little disappointments, they bicker and bellow at each other like wounded animals. Soon, Frank's sleeping on the couch and indulging an affair. April feels worse—that their home on Revolutionary Road is little more than a well-kept prison cell. The place their dreams have come to die.
Then, on Frank's birthday, April hatches a desperate proposition: Let's move to Paris. She'll take a job as a secretary—they earn so much money over there, she gushes—leaving Frank to, well, to figure out what he really wants to do. They'll be able to embrace life there, she says, just as they'd always planned.
"This is our chance, Frank," she tells him. "This is our one chance."
[Note: The following sections include spoilers.]
The 1950s suburban landscape painted by Revolutionary Road is hemmed in by a constricting set of expectations about what "suburban" should look like. But in a society where zigging with the crowd is important, Frank and April zag. They want to live life with abandon, not plod through it. "I want to feel things," Frank says. "Really feel. How's that for ambition?"
Granted, their nonconformity manifests itself in selfish ways. But the desire to embrace our God-given life and reject the lies of a given culture is, in many respects, similar to what Christians have done throughout the ages.
Frank and April have moments where they try to patch their relationship. Both profess love for their two children (who are rarely onscreen). Indeed, when things fall apart in the end, we hear that Frank spends every available hour with his kids. We see him watching them, tears in his eyes, as they swing at a playground.
A hymn can be heard in the background of one scene, and we hear "I am happy in the Lord."
Frank seduces a new secretary. Water cooler attraction leads to a multi-martini lunch which leads to sex at her apartment. The camera watches afterwards as she lounges on the bed, naked. (Her breasts, legs and parts of her torso are exposed.) Frank apparently feels some guilt, but he doesn't end the affair.
He later confesses his infidelity, but April reacts with icy indifference, saying (in strong language) that he can sleep with whomever he wishes. That may be in part because April hasn't been faithful either: She has sex with her married neighbor, Shep, in the front seat of his car. Both remain clothed, but the scene is filmed to make viewers feel about as dirty as the couple. It's played as a frank, carnal act. Shep tells April the moment is a dream come true and confesses his love—an admission April dismisses.
Frank and April have sex on a kitchen counter. Again, clothing stays on, but audiences see sexual movements and hear moaning. Frank and April kiss, sometimes passionately. Their arguments are littered with sexual innuendo. April sometimes insinuates Frank is something less than a man, and a houseguest suggests that April has so emasculated Frank that the only way he can prove his manhood is by fathering children.
When April discovers she's pregnant—the development that derails her new dreams—she performs an abortion on herself. She unwraps and carries the abortion instrument (a rubber suction-like device) to the bathroom. Afterwards, she walks slowly down the stairs and gazes through the window as blood stains her dress and the white carpet below her. She winds up in the hospital, and Frank blurts out to Shep that April left the baby in the bathroom.
April dies in the hospital, and it's open to interpretation whether the abortion might have also been a suicide attempt. "I don't believe that she was intending to kill herself, but she knew that it was a very big risk," Kate Winslet, who plays April, told nycmovieguru.com.
Conversations leading up to the abortion are disturbing, too: Frank angrily says that he finds the thought of abortion horrific. In a moment of conflict later on, however, he spits, "I wish to God that you had" had an abortion.
Frank twice nearly hits April during arguments, but deflects his anger to inanimate objects: the car roof, a kitchen chair, a vanity's worth of bottles. He nearly punches another person as well.
Crude or Profane Language
About 10 f-words and a handful of s-words. God's name is misused almost 20 times. Half are paired with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused about 10 times. Characters utter other profanities ("b--tard," "h---," "a--") and crudely reference critical body parts.
Drug and Alcohol Content
As are most films that deconstruct 1950s suburbia, Revolutionary Road is soaked in booze and hazy with cigarette smoke. Frank and April (and practically everyone else) smoke frequently, and they guzzle beer, sherry and martinis, among other drinks. Rarely, in fact, do we see them without a drink and/or cigarette in hand. April smokes and drinks while pregnant.
Other Negative Elements
"No one forgets the truth, Frank," April hollers during one fight. "They just get better at lying." And Revolutionary Road is loaded with lies. Characters tell them to friends, neighbors, spouses and themselves. Frank and April hurl legions of biting insults at each other. A houseguest tells April that he'd pity any child born into such a family as hers.
"We were never special or destined for anything at all."
So says April, crouched over a drink, when her Parisian fantasy finally comes crashing down. Her last chance is gone—vaporized in a cloud of duty and circumstance. She tells herself how "pathetic" the idea was to begin with, how silly it was to "put all your hopes in a promise that was never made."
On the surface, director Sam Mendes (who helmed the equally despairing American Beauty) sympathizes with April's plight. His 1950s setting of domestic bliss in the suburbs is, for Hollywood, often synonymous with a certain brand of conservative American cultural oppression. And April is painted as a caged bird, longing to fly. Her baby is a shackle, and so he deals with her decision to end its life with sadness, sympathy and perhaps a measure of approval. Many reviewers have suggested that April is something of a heroine, and Winslet argues that the self-induced abortion is, on some level, courageous.
But there's more going on here.
"I was an unplanned pregnancy," Kathy Bates, who plays nosey friend Helen Givings, told thedeadbolt.com. "My mother was 41 when she had me, and I think she came very close to making the same decision that April makes in the film, but then she changed her mind, and I've been haunted by that all my life."
Beyond abortion, then, Revolutionary Road is about the conflict between our duties and our desires, and the choices we must make between the two. Bates' mother made one choice. April made another. One produced life. The other death. One recognized that anchors serve as important a purpose as sails do. The other ... didn't.
It's also about the conflict between dreams and reality—between aiming for the bombastically great and living a life of quiet goodness. It's fitting, perhaps intentional, that April is named after a month in which the world blossoms from bleak to beautiful, filling with new growth and promise. April is a creature of promise, desperately desiring the life and love of springtime. But she's unable or unwilling to endure any longer the cold. She's incapable of understanding how it is the chill and darkness that prepare the way for buds and warmth. The child she carries—something most mothers would consider the ultimate promise—becomes in April's eyes a weight crushing her with duty, the death knell for her dreams.
Yes, the film skewers 1950s suburbia—a rite so familiar in pop culture that it's become a cliché. But it whispers a deeper, darker message, too. It suggests that April wasn't ever cut out to be an actress. It insinuates that maybe Frank won't ever find a job that he loves. It softly suggests April's greatest fears—that "we were never special or destined for anything at all"—are well-founded. That Paris might be no more effective a cure for April's woes than Poughkeepsie.
And then it insists there's absolutely nothing they can do about it.
"Plenty of people see the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness," a friend tells Frank and April. If that's true, Revolutionary Road has a lot of guts. This is a bleak, bitter movie, a snapshot of what it would consider normal, but what I would call life without faith. For there's hardly a breath of spirituality to warm the film's two arduous hours, and its characters act and respond without recognizing that there's more to life ... than life. Their primary impulses revolve around personal pleasure—to, as Frank says, "really feel"—and a desperate desire to continue reaching for an elusively sublime existence. Even their love for each other is essentially selfish. It collapses when happiness begins to ebb.
Helen Keller once said, "I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble." April never grasps the greatness of being quietly good.