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Few directors have ascended to the upper echelons of Hollywood talent as quickly as Sam Mendes. While Mendes was no slouch when he first got into the film business (he had directed several critically acclaimed stage plays, many featuring movie actors), he became one of the few directors to earn an Oscar for a directorial debut, for his work in 1999′s American Beauty. Since then, he has expanded his style considerably, crafting a different world for each of his films, every one possessed of a distinct palette and a unique texture.
Above all, Mendes’ films are films of ideas. Even when set in the relentless monotony of the suburbs, each one of his films feels epic in scope and sweeping in message. Yet each one of his films (even Jarhead, which examined military bonds, as well as his new film, Away We Go) seems to return to the common theme of family and the ties that bind. I can’t say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his movies, but I can say I’m glad they exist because they are always thought-provoking and, as a bonus, beautiful.
With the recent release of Mendes’ new film Away We Go, we thought it’d be cool to take a look back at Mendes filmography. Hit the jump for a quick take on each of his films [very minor spoilers for all films follow].
American Beauty (1999)
Unquestionably the film that propelled Mendes to stardom, American Beauty actually sticks out in my mind more for Alan Ball’s incisive script than for Mendes’ style. It was in this film that we saw Ball take on the seedy underbelly of suburbia, an interpretation he would deepen and perfect in the brilliant HBO series Six Feet Under. Mendes would later return to the idea that the facade of suburban life covers the deepest of tragedies in 2008′s Revolutionary Road, but American Beauty was much more hopeful, insisting (almost to the point of self-parody) that there is beauty to be found in the simplest of sights and circumstances.
While I don’t think American Beauty has aged particularly well, I liked the main thrust of the film and found a visceral thrill to watching Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning performance as the fed-up Lester Burnham, willing and able to break free from his domestic confines. As for Mendes’ work, it seems to match Ball’s style perfectly, as simple words are given the utmost importance and the story is propelled, inevitably, to its tragic conclusion.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Notable for its use of perpetual-nice-guy Tom Hanks as a hitman, Road To Perdition saw Mendes take on his first period piece, based off the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Perdition works on a number of levels, both as a trenchant examination of familial ties and a cat-and-mouse thriller. Featuring a bravura performance by Paul Newman as John Rooney and , Perdition also had the talents of cinematographer Conrad Hall, who helped capture the 1930s with grace and beauty. This film proved that Mendes was willing to stretch himself and make use of the considerable creative (and budgetary) leeway he’d been given in light of his Oscar win.
In a world with action-packed war movies like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, Mendes decided to go against the flow by making Jarhead, a film based off Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir. Featuring less combat and thrills than many contemporary war films, Jarhead examined the psychological toll of the Gulf War and the resulting camaraderie that developed between the soldiers through the eyes of PFC Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal). The results were decidedly mixed. As usual, the film looked great and was well-acted (featuring the likes of Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Fox, and Chris Cooper). However, many felt that Mendes’ reach went far beyond his grasp in conveying the true “suck” of war. And of course, from a marketing perspective, the film subverted any expectations of war films that you might get from the trailer. Nonetheless, Jarhead demonstrated that Mendes was willing to take chances with source material and was an admirable choice.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
What if Jack Dawes and Rose Dewitt got married, moved to the suburbs, and seethed with self-loathing and mutual hatred for a years before things spun wildly beyond their control (with disastrous results)? It would probably look a lot like Mendes Revolutionary Road, based off of Richard Yates novel of the same name and featuring the on-screen reunion of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In our podcast review of the film, I remarked that Revolutionary Road was a beautiful film and one that was incredibly well-acted, though its shouting matches sometimes felt a bit too scripted. It’s also absolutely gorgeous to behold, with some great cinematography by Roger Deakins and impressive production design by Kristi Zea.
Most of my problems stem from the film’s script (and by extension, from Yates original novel), which is unflinchingly brutal in its depiction of 1950s-era mental illness bred by a patriarchal society coupled with suburban ennui. Yates seems to insist that survival in suburbia requires the surrender of (at least a part of) one’s soul and oftentimes, that’s simply not the case. But regardless of my feelings about the film’s message, one thing’s for sure: It is extremely effective at beating you, the viewer, into submission (a fate shared by that of the film’s characters).
Away We Go (2009)
Out in limited release now and expanding wider in the weeks to come, Away We Go chronicles the story of two thirty-somethings (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) struggling to find their way in life. While I haven’t seen the film, /Film’s Adam Quigley was very complimentary of it in a recent /Filmcast episode, and the movie seems like it grapples with issues of identity and inner turmoil, which Mendes has proven himself more than capable of handling. Perhaps the most light-hearted of Mendes’ works to date, Away We Go will hopefully see Mendes’ continue to challenge himself in his career going forward.