Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, in 'Revolutionary Road'

Dir. Sam Mendes
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

This is Sam Mendes’s most accomplished film since American Beauty, but it is possibly the most problematic he has made. Returning to the subject of the misery of suburban conformity, he directs the story of an unhappily married couple straining against the ennui of 1950s Connecticut. In it, he shows the same insight into the psychology of outwardly successful people suffering a private hell. He composes shots of expressive beauty. And he collaborates again with composer Thomas Newman, whose piano work is plaintive and haunting. But a number of scenes land wide of the mark, and performances under his guide at times go astray. But more on those issues later.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, whose last on-screen collaboration was Titanic — maybe you’ve heard of it — play Frank and April Wheeler, a pair of hopeful bohemians who are excited about the future, until they marry and settle into domesticity. The first scene shows how they meet: at a party, where she catches his eye and they discuss their aspirations. She is studying to be an actress, and he is hopping between menial jobs as he searches for his life’s passion. In the next scene, she has finished a performance in a badly received play, and by the end of the night they have an argument by the side of the road that nearly becomes violent. Mendes conveys their marriage visually as well as in the performances of the actors: they are close and intimate at the party, but in a low-angle shot after the play they are shown separated by a row of overhead lights in a corridor, and they are even more physically distant in the car driving home. When the fight is over, Mendes displays the title of the film, which gives us a good sense of what it will be about: the ways in which closeness turns to alienation.

Cut to years later. The Wheelers have two children and live in a perfectly cozy house on Revolutionary Road. Frank works for the same company his late father worked for, even though he swore he would never follow in his father’s footsteps. April is a housewife, and miserably so. In an image reminiscent of a climactic shot from the director’s Road to Perdition, Mendes shows her staring through a window of the house, which evokes feelings of longing and captivity. This image is echoed in a later scene, to devastating effect.

The supporting cast is important. The Wheelers’ neighbors are Shep and Milly Campbell (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn). They seem equally unhappy, but they put on happy faces. Frank’s best friend at work is Jack Ordway (Dylan Baker). Notice how these friends react when Frank and April make a drastic decision to change their lives: they accuse the Wheelers of being unrealistic and immature. Through these characters, the screenplay by Justin Haythe (based on the novel by Richard Yates) expresses its most fascinating insight: the lives of these dutiful worker bees and suburbanites are dependent on the belief that there is no better way, and they resent the Wheelers for showing them otherwise. In this way, the discontented keep each other’s dreams in check.

One man supports their decision, but supposedly he’s crazy. John Givings (Michael Shannon), the son of the Wheelers’ realtor Helen Givings (Kathy Bates), has been committed to a mental institution, but the nature of his illness isn’t specified. In the story, he operates as a Shakespearean fool; he is disregarded but has greater wisdom than the kings and queens. In an insular town like this, it’s possible that speaking your mind is a condition found in the DSM, penciled in somewhere between self-reflection and individuality on the list of troublesome neuroses.

As a portrait of a marriage, Revolutionary Road is searing and frequently brilliant, with scenes of raw emotional power. Unfortunately, there are others that don’t work at all. I can’t fault the actors for their often conspicuously mannered line readings; they’re top-rate and prove in their stronger scenes to be equal to the material. I can’t fault DiCaprio if he sometimes emotes and gesticulates so grandly that he is a distraction; those instances are countered by several scenes of exceptional subtlety and fierce intensity where he is just about perfect. I can’t fault Bates if she is directed to be a caricature of affected Stepford-ness. And I can’t fault Shannon if his character seems to come out of another movie entirely; his appearances, though well acted, are so jarring that they create an unwelcome, uneasy effect; I heard intermittent laughter from the audience during his second big scene, and I think they were on to something.

Winslet gives the most consistent performance. She is exceptional, playing a character not unlike the role she played two years ago in Todd Field’s great film Little Children. There is a despair in April that goes deep, a feeling that she has sacrificed herself in the process of getting married and raising children, and Winslet expresses it with sad, tired eyes and stubborn toughness; those around her have learned to compromise, but she’s still fighting tooth and nail to escape. It is one of the best performances of the year.

There is a masterpiece inside Revolutionary Road. It is evident in the way Mendes is able to articulate an idea of the rat race by showing a mass of like-dressed men on the way to work, with DiCaprio lost in the crowd. It is evident in the profound ache of a breakfast scene that follows an ugly blowup in the Wheelers’ marriage. Mendes, who is among my favorite directors, swings for the fences, and I would credit him with a success rate of about 70%. The result is one of the better movies of the year, though not one of the best.