Top Ten Movies of 2008 — Number Four

4revolutionary

Revolutionary Road never had a chance. Months before it ever unspooled in a theater, it was the focus of agitated hype, the reunion of Titanic co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet held up as a major movie moment. As if these two performers, who have each developed immensely as actors in the decade since they swooned aboard that unsinkable giant prop, were still confined by that bloated box office success, still defined by the cardboard roles afforded them in James Cameron’s experiment in epic storytelling. As if they were trading in on move star personae, giving a well-worn partnership another spin, making a bid for a modern version of the mimeographed familiarity of the dusty old Tracy-Hepburn films. As if this bleak, pointed, fierce domestic drama could bear the burden of those misguided expectations. The hearts that beat in Revolutionary Road may do any number of things, but there’s certainly no guarantee that they will go on. Spinning dark genius from a Richard Yates novel that’s revered in all the right quarters, screenwriter Justin Haythe and director Sam Mendes merciless wring honest anger from the simple story of what happens when a vibrant young couple finds themselves living an atrophied life together, battered by the knowledge that vibrancy and youth both fade away, no matter the fictions created to convince ourselves otherwise. Set in the heart of the nineteen-fifties, the film depicts the American moment at its most lacquered, the rigid precision of the suburbs serving as the guise of perfection. It also delves deep enough to show that rot was already setting in, the paint on the stage sets peeling away. If you looked close enough, it was apparent that it was all artifice, even if it took someone labeled as mentally ill to have the necessary bravado to say so. That someone in question is played by Michael Shannon, taking charge of a film with only a handful of scenes in a way unseen in quite some time. It’s all the more impressive given that he’s commanding scenes already marked by grand, eloquent performances. As the withering patriarch of the family, DiCaprio is oddly moving in his very weakness. Like others, his character is playing a role. He just happens to be the one most inept at keeping up the ruse. Kate Winslet, meanwhile, simply delivers the finest performance yet in an already stellar career. Revolutionary Road is difficult, demanding, uncompromising. It’s also a potent achievement that, paradoxically, completely outshines the bygone global blockbuster it could never live up to.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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