Set in 1955, Revolutionary Road finds Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet portraying Frank and April Wheeler, a young, affluent couple who realize they're miserable with their well-ordered lives in the suburbs - beautiful home, adorable kids, friendly neighbors - and it would be perfectly understandable if audiences watched the pair's suffering and listened to their frequent fits of rage and asked, "What's the freaking problem here?"
They won't necessarily get the answer in director Sam Mendes' adaptation of Richard Yates' acclaimed novel. Most of the book's punch lies in why things are said rather than what is said, and few of Frank's and April's complex motivations translate in Justin Haythe's serviceable screenplay, outside of some vaguely outlined senses of chronic disappointment and boredom. Yet despite being a considerable (and inevitable) simplification of Yates' marital horror show, Revolutionary Road is oftentimes astonishing, and filled with painful, raw encounters that you can't get out of your head.
Mendes' period film is gorgeous to look at, but there's a monstrous ugliness beneath its surface, and it's one that DiCaprio and Winslet, to their great credit, reveal with utter fearlessness. In truth, it does take a while to figure out exactly what DiCaprio is doing here, as his early scenes find him too self-aware and ironically knowing about what a heel Frank is; it seems like he just stepped out of a cattle call for TV's Mad Men. We soon understand, though, that DiCaprio's obvious play-acting in the role is intentional - Frank offers everyone around him a daily performance of The Big Shot that he can't pull off very well - and when his armor cracks, the character's confusion and terror are palpable. (DiCaprio's boyishness, which has been a hindrance in other roles, works wonderfully well for Frank.)
Winslet throws us off in a different direction. Initially, her April appears merely dissatisfied and eager to escape - the frustrated-'50s-housewife incarnate. Yet as April begins to formulate a plan for the Wheelers' salvation, she develops a mischievous, almost maniacal gleam in her eyes that suggests not just longed-for independence, but clarity - a realization of everything she's lost and is desperate to find again - and Winslet's instinctively touching performance grows deeply unsettling. The actress slightly overplays her climactic scene (there's a rather too-obvious hint of Stepford Wife), but this does little to detract from Winslet's bold, frightening, emotionally transparent turn.
If anyone comes close to stealing Revolutionary Road from its leads, it's Michael Shannon as a recently hospitalized mathematician (37 electroshock sessions and counting), so eccentric and hypnotic and viciously truthful that you can barely tear your eyes from him. But Mendes does superlative work with the film's entire cast - Kathy Bates, David Harbour, and Kathryn Hahn are all outstanding - and there are memorable images galore: a violent screaming match in front of car headlights; a damaged April standing in silence at a picture window; an elderly husband subtly turning down the volume on his hearing device. It's not quite as strong as its source material - which, with literary adaptations, should probably just go without saying - but Revolutionary Road is still an impassioned film experience, a devastatingly downbeat piece that gives you a major lift.