When I was 10 years old, my dad showed me The Shining, which in some states would probably be considered reckless endangerment. I loved it, even as I could feel it permanently altering the wiring of my brain. I’ve since spent the past two decades trying to re-create that experience — i.e., find a movie so perfectly terrifying that it low-key destroys my life and completely ravages my worldview. (Thank you, yes, I am in therapy.) I’ve seen a lot of good horror movies over the years (The Descent, Goodnight Mommy, It Follows, Let the Right One In, and Hereditary are some of my favorites), but the hours upon hours of horror-viewing have mostly just served to slowly erode my pleasure centers and turn me into the kind of person who can watch The Strangers alone in my house in the bathtub and then get a great night’s sleep.
There is, however, one exception, one film that can still reach the recesses of my dilapidated brain. It is the scariest movie I have ever seen. It provides me with nightmare fuel to this day. Even thinking of it on a warm summer’s eve, I shudder, chilled to the bone, pulling my floral cardigan tightly around my shoulders, wondering if that long shadow on the driveway is just my imagination. This film is Revolutionary Road, which came out on Christmas 2008, and was billed, incredibly, as a “romance.”
The first time I saw Revolutionary Road, I was on winter break from college, and my mom and I went to a nice afternoon screening, just two gals excited to watch Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunited for the first time since Titanic. Before the film ended, I was out in the hallway, experiencing my very first panic attack. Last night, I rewatched it for the first time since that fateful afternoon, and I immediately picked a fight with my boyfriend about whether or not we should subscribe to the Criterion Channel. “I guess we will have a life devoid of art and culture and history,” I said, smoking 12 cigarettes at once as I sewed myself an apron with my other hand. My point is, this movie ruins lives.
If you’re unfamiliar with Revolutionary Road, let’s unpack it together because you absolutely should not watch it unless you want to obliterate any remaining sense of joy (or unless it’s Halloween and you want to watch a horror movie, in which case, this is the only one). Based on Richard Yates’s 1961 novel of the same name and directed by Sam Mendes, the movie follows the downward trajectory of 1950s East Coast couple April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio). April, an aspiring actress, and Frank, a longshoreman, meet at a party, locking eyes from across the room, and begin sexily dancing. Oh, wow, you might think during this scene. It’s like Titanic, but if Rose had just scooched over and let Jack onto the door and they were able to live a lovely life together and flirt at parties. I’m sorry to tell you this, but actually, it is like Titanic, except only in the sense that it is a film primarily marked by sheer misery until one of them dies and it’s basically the other one’s fault.
Before the opening credits even conclude, Kate and Leo are living in the Connecticut suburbs with two kids and a “modern” house on a street called — you guessed it — Revolutionary Road. Everything is beige. Everyone’s pants are beige, everyone’s hair is beige (except for Kate Winslet, who gets to be icy blonde to convey that she is different), everyone’s beach umbrellas are beige, everyone’s carpet is beige, everyone’s couch is beige, everyone’s soul is beige. Kate has just bombed spectacularly as the lead in the town’s play, and Leo is like, “Yeah, that actually did suck.” To add insult to injury, Kathy Bates is their Realtor, which means this is truly a diabolical reanimation of the entire cast of Titanic, transplanting them all to a scenario that is somehow shittier than a gigantic sinking boat.
Within the film’s first five minutes, Kate and Leo are screaming at each other inside their car and then on the side of the road, which, again, is basically like spraying poorly done graffiti onto the historical landmark that is Titanic’s car sex scene. The scene is meant to indicate how bone-deep depressed they both are. Kate tells Leo he’s a “pathetic, self-deluded little boy” who “has me in a trap”; Leo calls her “sick”; she calls him “disgusting.” He punches their car on the head. They go home. Nobody draws anybody like one of their French girls.
We’re then introduced to their daily routines: Frank heads to work in a sea of men dressed in the exact same oversize gray suit and stupid gray hat. April is taking out the trash and doing the laundry in her apron, looking forlornly out her picture window onto the crabgrass. Sometimes Kathy Bates bursts in with a patch of some other grass to put on the crabgrass and she and Kate sit and stare at each other in silence. If you, for example, are watching this next to your mom in suburban Chicago in the middle of a gigantic multilevel movie theater inside a shopping mall in the mid-aughts, you begin to feel the stirrings of a panic attack.
The most frightening parts of Revolutionary Road center on the idea that Kate and Leo believe that they’re somehow “special” — that even though they live in the suburbs and have kids and do laundry and stare at grass and fuck their secretaries after lunchtime Martinis, they’re better than their neighbors, and are living this life from an ironic distance. They don’t want this life; they’re living it almost by accident. They repeat this idea to each other over and over again, and even Kathy Bates is like, “You guys aren’t like my other clients. You’re special.” But not special enough to avoid the cruel banality and homogeneity of 1950s suburbia. Both Kate and Leo yearn to break free of their claustrophobic existence (“We’ve resigned to the ridiculous idea that you have to settle down once you have children!” says Kate, desperate for a change) and for a brief period in the middle of the movie, they decide to, planning to move their family to Paris so Leo can figure out what he wants to do with his life.
For a few scenes, things begin to look up: Leo decides to quit his job at the whatever factory, Kate wears a jaunty ponytail as she packs up their house, and everyone around them is bewildered and secretly jealous that they seem to have figured out how to escape the doldrums. This is truly the meanest part of the movie because you know these mofos aren’t moving to Paris, you just don’t know why.
In the midst of the Paris planning, Kathy Bates brings her son Michael Shannon over for lunch, explaining that he’s on a brief recess from a stay in the local mental hospital and she thought Leo and Kate might cheer him up. It turns out that Michael Shannon’s “insanity” is really just a propensity for telling the truth, and since he’s the only other person in this movie who’s willing to admit that the 1950s suburbs suck, he and Kate and Leo get along famously, laughing deliriously about the empty hopelessness of their lives and strolling around in the woods.
It is statistically impossible for Kate and Leo to have sex onscreen without instant chaos ensuing, and this film is no exception. Kate and Leo fuck against a kitchen cabinet in the heat of their Paris delusion, Kate gets pregnant shortly thereafter, and when she calmly suggests an abortion, Leo goes ballistic. (At this point in the movie, my boyfriend turns to me and says, “It feels like this movie was made specifically to antagonize you.”) Eventually, Leo gets a promotion at the whatever factory and decides that he won’t quit his job and they’ll stay and rot in suburban Connecticut. “It is possible that Parisians aren’t the only ones capable of leading interesting lives,” he says, wearing beige at the beige beach.
Things go aggressively downhill from here. Kate is like, “I don’t want another baby; the first baby was a mistake and we only had a second baby so we could tell ourselves that the first baby wasn’t a mistake.” Leo is like, “You are hysterical. We need to find you a doctor to help you make sense of your life!!!” Kate promptly bones the sheriff from Stranger Things. “Married, two kids. Should be enough,” she says to him before they have sex in a car (again … this Titanic slander!). “It is for him. He’s right. We were never special or destined for anything at all.”
Soon, Kate is peeling potatoes in a housedress and Leo is having sex with Zoe Kazan and I am losing it. There is nothing more horrifying than watching Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater making it off the boat only to live a life of blunt sorrow in a beige house, making beige potatoes in a beige bowl. Leo comes home to Mrs. Potatohead and tells her that he’s been cheating on her, but it’s over. She says she doesn’t care and doesn’t love him anymore. Michael Shannon stops by again, and when he finds out they’re not moving to Paris anymore, he’s furious. “Little woman decides she’s not ready to stop playing house?” he screams, his face reddening as he turns to Leo. “You figure it’s more comfy here in the old hopeless emptiness after all, huh? … I wouldn’t be surprised if he knocked her up on purpose just so he could spend the rest of his life hiding behind a maternity dress. That way he’d never have to find out what he’s made of.” (I begin Googling “flights to Paris leaving right now with no return flight.”)
Leo and Kate have another knockdown brawl, ending with Kate running into the woods and leaning against several trees for roughly eight hours straight. Leo spends the night alone in a dark house, confronting the innate chaos of the universe and that feeling when you don’t eat dinner and fall asleep really early by accident and then you wake up and you’re like, Where am I? Who am I? Is there such a thing as the self or is it just a series of habits we’ve constructed to distract ourselves from the wilderness of the human condition?
When Kate returns, she’s entered the Uncanny Valley of 1950s Housewives. Hair done, makeup on, she makes Leo a full breakfast: scrambled eggs, half a grapefruit, coffee, toast. She sits across from him, smiling vacantly. Both disappear near seamlessly into their prescribed roles. “Tell me about your new job,” she says. Leo draws a computer on a napkin as he explains how he’s going to sell them. “I see,” Kate says, eyes black and empty. “At least, I think I see.” Leo leaves for the day, his eyes watering with joy. “I don’t know when I’ve ever had a nicer breakfast,” he says. It is the most chilling scene I’ve ever seen on film. Watching it, I feel like I need an exorcist. And it only gets darker: The moment Leo leaves, Kate gives herself a vacuum aspiration abortion, bleeds bright red onto the beige carpet, and dies.
The film ends as the neighborhood digests the news of Kate and Leo’s fate. Kathy Bates tells her husband that Leo lives in the city now with his kids, a broken husk of a man, and the new couple moving into the Wheelers’ house is really the “only couple who’s ever been right for the house.” Her husband studies her. “What about the Wheelers?” he asks. She launches into a well-rehearsed diatribe, explaining how Kate and Leo were “too whimsical” and “allowed the house to depreciate.” Her husband stares blankly at her as he slowly turns off his hearing aid — the point, of course, being that everyone secretly hates the person they’re supposed to love and life is one long slog into an inescapable existential beige hell.
Back in the year 2008, I am weeping in a movie-theater bathroom, a broken husk of a woman. My mom comes into the bathroom and laughs. “Rachel,” she says. “It’s fine. You don’t have to live in the suburbs.”