Britisher Mendes, who examined the dark underside of American suburbia in the Oscar-winning "American Beauty" a decade ago, goes to even scarier places with this new movie, which nails 1950s suburban angst with a painter's eye and a poet's soul.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, who are briefly introduced as post-World War II Greenwich Village bohemians - she's an aspiring actress and he's working as a longshoreman until he decides what he wants to do when he grows up.
Fast-forward a few years, and their youthful glow is fading. He commutes from their Connecticut home to a soul-deadening job in Manhattan and she's the stay-at-home mother of two children, whom she loves dearly but clearly also considers a growing burden.
The Wheeler marriage is not a happy one. When they're not self-medicating with booze, they're lashing out at each other in frustration with increasing viciousness.
Frank, feeling emasculated, has a fling with Maureen (Zoe Kazan, Elia's granddaughter), a girl at the office. April, unaware of the dalliance, seeks comfort in the backseat of her car with Shep (David Harbour), husband of her best friend, Milly (Kathryn Hahn).
This downward spiral is briefly arrested when April, afflicted by increasingly violent mood swings, suggests to Frank that they run off to Paris with the kids. She offers to go to work as a translator, while Frank would finally have the opportunity to decide what he really wants to do.
They called this nonconformity back in the '50s, and Shep's and Milly's shocked reaction to their plans beautifully betrays the attitudes of the era.
Meanwhile, the plan - and the Wheelers' shaky union - has come under scrutiny of John Givings (a brilliant Michael Shannon), a former mathematician who is on leave from a mental hospital.
His mother, a real-estate agent (Kathy Bates), isn't sure what to make of the Wheelers, but John sizes up the situation pretty quickly - and shatters their self-deceptions in brutally honest and blackly funny terms.
Events keep conspiring to keep the Wheelers in Connecticut. April wants to terminate an unexpected pregnancy - even as Frank's tempted by a big promotion at work.
Mendes' movie scores with its extreme attention to detail - not only superficial stuff like the costumes and sets (which are terrific, and immaculately photographed by Roger Deakins), but also the way the actors talk and move.
Justin Haythe's astringent screenplay very slightly softens Richard Yates' 1961 novel. Compared to Alan Ball's script for "American Beauty," this is tragedy straight up, no chaser.
Mendes' direction is even sharper here, and the acting is fantastic across the board. DiCaprio, who has hidden behind accents in several recent films, reaches deep into himself for a not especially likable character. And Winslet (Mendes' wife) once again demonstrates why she's one of the best actresses working today.
"Revolutionary Road" is about as far as you can get from the kind of escapism that contemporary Americans may be craving right now.
But if you want to brave a look back at just how sad and empty the prosperous "Mad Men" era could be, seek out this beautifully executed film.