No writer ever gazed deeper or more despairingly into the prison of middle-class American conformity than Richard Yates, which may explain why none of his books sold more than 12,000 copies in his lifetime, and why it’s taken more than 40 years for one of them to reach the big screen. It is said we go to the movies to escape, after all, and Yates’ great subject was the very thing many of us seek to escape — namely, the lives of prefabricated mediocrity we settle for when personal ambition yields to the desire to be “just like everyone else.” Decades before divorce lawyers and prescription pharmaceuticals became convenient panaceas for all that ails us, Yates (1926-1992) pulled back the curtain on Auden’s “age of anxiety” and found that the Plasticine dream of suburban bliss was something closer to a waking nightmare.

So there’s a wonderfully perverse irony in the fact that the film version of Yates’ first and most lauded novel, Revolutionary Road, stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet — the very actors who, as the star-crossed lovers in James Cameron’s Titanic, defined ever-lasting movie romance for an entire generation of filmgoers. Here, Kate and Leo again strive to keep their heads above water, gasping for air. Only, in Revolutionary Road, the sinking ship pulling them under is their own marriage.

Like many of Yates’ characters, Frank and April Wheeler appear to be the most average of postwar average Americans — he a midlevel worker bee for the same New York corporation where his father eked out a similarly anonymous existence, she a stay-at-home mother of two with a well-kept house in a tree-lined corner of western Connecticut. But it wasn’t so long ago that Frank was a combat-vet-turned–Lower Manhattan bon vivant — “an intense, nicotine-stained Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man,” Yates writes — and April was a young starlet who fell under his worldly spell. And despite their newfound comfort and prosperity, they have both held on to this memory of earlier times, used it to convince themselves that they were once “interesting” people and could be so again. Deep down, they know that this life of suburban anonymity isn’t for them. Deeper down, they fear they may be wrong.

In what may be a last-ditch attempt to save themselves, April makes an inspired proposal: Why don’t they just pack it all in and move to Paris, where she’ll take a job and Frank will be free to … well, to “find himself”? And for a while, their escape plan buoys the Wheelers, gives them even greater contempt for the pettiness — the “hopeless emptiness,” as Frank memorably terms it — of everything around them. Until, that is, April gets the news that sends their can’t-miss plan on a collision course with a metaphorical iceberg.

Directed by Sam Mendes from a scrupulously faithful adaptation by Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road isn’t a great movie — it lacks the full, soul-crushing force of the novel — but what works in it works so well, and is so tricky to pull off, that you can’t help but admire it. By no means an easy candidate for adaptation, Yates dwells in the shadow area between people’s conscious and subconscious selves, between the faces they show to the world (and even their spouses) and the ones they see when they look in the bedroom mirror at night. To fully grasp Revolutionary Road is to understand that two people can be at their most alone when they are together — and Mendes, whose American Beauty rendered a similar investigation of suburban anomie as a gallery of over-the-top comic grotesques, willingly goes there. Where the earlier movie was easy to brush off, this one gets under your skin: It is to Mendes’ great credit that Revolutionary Road will likely lead to some tense moments between many a young couple on their drive home from the cinema.

Some will quibble that Kate and Leo are too glamorous to convincingly portray the dream-deferred middle class, but it’s essential to Revolutionary Road that Frank and April come across as the sort of ordinary people other ordinary people envy, and in that respect, the casting is spot-on. As Winslet has already demonstrated once this season (in The Reader, where she is the only compelling reason to see the film), among her seemingly boundless gifts as an actress is an acute grasp of bright young women beset by some intractable inner torment. DiCaprio, meanwhile, plays Frank with the faintly emasculated authority of so many outgoing, well-bred young men who still haunt the corridors of corporate America — men who may have once aspired to live la vie Parisienne or play pro ball or write the Great American Novel, before time and tide made them settle for less Olympian lives. But the movie’s one stroke of real genius arrives in the form of the tall, jittery character actor Michael Shannon, who shows up for two scenes as the paranoid schizophrenic son of the Wheelers’ matronly real estate agent (Kathy Bates). Brought to meet Frank and April as part of his attempted re-entry into society, he immediately recognizes the unhappy couple as some kind of fellow travelers, and Yates (who himself spent time in various “bughouses”) imparts to him the story’s most resonant observation: “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

Perhaps owing to his stage background, Mendes is the sort of movie director who tends to come up with a single, all-encompassing stylistic concept and then rarely deviates from it. That seemed like a shortcoming in his previous films, but in Revolutionary Road it translates into a stately, semi-detached, observational approach that makes it seem as if Frank and April Wheeler’s Good Housekeeping home were itself directing the movie. Which is only fitting for a film that, by the end, turns into a far more unsettling haunted-house story than The Amityville Horror. A friend who attended an early Revolutionary Road screening complained that it gave him the feeling of watching two John Cassavetes characters trapped in a Yasujiro Ozu film; but this, it seems to me, is precisely the point. Even after Frank and April’s climactic knockdown-dragout argument, chez Wheeler is markedly undisturbed — sitting there, biding its time, waiting to devour its next victims and their futile ambitions.

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD | Directed by SAM MENDES | Written by JUSTIN HAYTHE, based on the novel by RICHARD YATES | Produced by JOHN N. HART, SCOTT RUDIN, MENDES and BOBBY COHEN | Released by Paramount Vantage | Arclight Hollywood

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