The Reader (Daldry, 2008)

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I fully expected to hate The Reader, seeing as it’s been labeled as the latest Weinstein Co. Oscar-bait undeserving of any accolades or praise. However, Stephen Daldry’s film about the long-lasting and devastating ramifications of inaction deserves a bit more respect. The core performances are all excellent, and the script favors the smaller and quieter character moments over the ham-handed monologues of other films of its ilk. What surprised me most was how the film skirts around the typical WWII/Holocaust themes and builds a more focused character study concerning weakness and longing. The film doesn’t ask you to sympathize with a woman guilty of choosing Jews to die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz like some critics have stated, but instead recognize the varying layers of perception and reality when consumed by suffocating surroundings. The Reader isn’t transcendent when it comes to these themes, but it certainly gives more credence to its characters’ plight than Benjamin Button or ChangelingThe Reader is quite formative at allowing Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and newcomer David Kross to expand their characters beyond the expected outcome, developing a rhythm of time and space distinctly tuned for emphasizing performance.

Revolutionary Road (Mendes, 2008)

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In each of his four feature films, director Sam Mendes finds tragedy in families on the edge of collapse, be it within the United States Military in Jarhead, or the nuclear ones in American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and now Revolutionary Road. More interestingly though, Mendes is one of the few Western directors to truly genre hop, from Melodrama, to Gangster, to War film, autuerist motifs/themes/ mise-en-scene in tow. While Revolutionary Road might initially be perceived as a marital war of words, it contains multiple elements of Horror which stand out as the film progresses. As the young couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) living in 1950’s suburbia struggle to find relevance in the suffocating confines of conformity, Mendes manipulates their seemingly sunny locale with cavernous close-ups and harsh strands of light. This breaking marriage weaves excuses, lies, and tenderness together to form a timeline of inadequacy, Roger Deakins’ hypnotically menacing camera constantly hovering throughout. Only Michael Shannon’s mental patient PhD sees this couple for who they are, and has the brass to say so in two dynamic scenes of comeuppance. The anger, anguish, and betrayal culminate into one striking image toward the end of the film, where the small dripping vibrancy of red overwhelms the monochromatic space, finally juxtaposing the destructive qualities of limitation and weakness with the fear at the heart of such emotions. This suburban nightmare has many monsters lurking underneath the surface, waiting for a time to passively reveal their crippling perceptions about family, tradition, and image. The silence is almost too much to stand.