Desperate Characters and Lush Visuals: The Films of Sam Mendes

In anticipation for the Friday release of Spectre, we’re going to look back on Sam Mendes’ diverse and critically welcomed filmography. His transition from turning Tom Hanks into a believable gangster to making us think a Bond film can be Oscar worthy, is proof that Mendes is one of the best filmmakers working today.

Director Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productionsí action adventure SKYFALL.

Director Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions action adventure SKYFALL.

In the early 90’s, he was making quite the name for himself in the London theater world.  Every production he put his hands on during this time gathered critical acclaim, especially his production of Cabaret that lead to it’s own Broadway revival.

From the offbeat Assassins to his recent production of King Lear, all the plays/musicals he seemed to be doing were about desperate people, facing struggles out of their control. As he was gearing up for his big screen debut, he found the perfect character driven script. It was called American Beauty.

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Image via DreamWorks

American Beauty (1999)

I will be the first to admit, I was not the biggest fan of American Beauty when I first watched it. The intense family drama mixed with the dark yet sly humor of Kevin Spacey’s character left a bad taste in my mouth.  But something funny happened, I got older and could see all the things Mendes was doing.

Spacey’s character was no longer selfish or random, because of the midlife crisis he was facing. I could relate to him quitting his “big boy” job and wanting to find a job that brought meaning to him.

I no longer felt he was random for buying a remote control car and saying he ruled because he blackmailed his former boss. I was drinking the kool-aid and I couldn’t believe I missed all that after my first viewing.

Mendes’ work in theater helps tremendously here and you can tell that he made sure each actor gave their all, especially in the famous “pass the asparagus” scene, which featured Spacey throwing a bowl of food at the wall and scaring his whole family.

However, his direction isn’t the only reason why the film has a lingering legacy 16 years after it was released. The lush and iconic cinematography from Conrad Hall, who shot such classics as Butch Cassidy and In Cold Blood, made the story visually come alive.

I believe working with Hall resulted in Mendes wanting to hire the best people to surround himself with. This smart decision led him to winning a Best Director Oscar for his first film. If he were to hire someone who was not as accomplished as Hall, he likely wouldn’t have been addicted to making sure all his films also work as visual wonders.

Quick note, a great director is made even better with the right cinematographer.  When a director and cinematographer are able to match each other’s wave lengths about how a film should look and feel, the results can be marvelous. A great example of this is Spielberg and Janusz Kaminsky’s harsh and iconic visual style in Saving Private Ryan.

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Image via DreamWorks

Road to Perdition (2002)

Too many filmmakers try to make the tired storyline of a father and a son bonding feel fresh and entertaining. Sam Mendes wasn’t afraid of this challenge and decided to take it on for his second film.

It didn’t disappoint.

Road to Perdition is sadly forgotten nowadays, but I think it stands as the director’s most entertaining film. What it lacked in Beauty’s emotional depth, Mendes makes up for in action, intensity, and unconventional casting.  The casting of Tom Hanks as a gangster who isn’t afraid to fire a bullet, seemed very out of the ordinary at the time.

To make this transition believable, Mendes chooses to make Hanks’ character say few words at a time and to have him use body language instead of clever monologues. This lead the character interactions between Hank’s and Tyler Hoechlin as his son, very tender and sad at the same time.

The two of them are on the run after his son sees his boss’ son murder in cold blood and Conrad Hall captures all of this in a beautiful way.  From capturing Chicago’s vast urban landscapes to the framing the film’s shootouts, Hall is clearly loving his job.

Sadly, Road to Perdition’s cinematography also serves as Hall’s swan song. He passed away before he had the honor of receiving his second Oscar working with Mendes.

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Image via Universal

Jarhead (2005)

War films are a tricky subject matter, especially when you try to make a war film set during the gulf war because of the constant stigma it brings up.

I feel like David O. Russel’s Three Kings said it best when George Clooney yells, “What did we do here? What did we accomplish here?”

Jarhead takes on that notion head on and doesn’t look back.

Following up two Oscar darlings, Mendes wasn’t looking to play it safe with another gangster flick or dramedy.

He wanted a less stylized and surreal look and decided the memoir about a man in the gulf war was the right direction for him to flex his creative muscles.  Hiring acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, known for his work on Shawshank Redemption and Sicario, was his first step into making sure the visuals would exceed expectations.

From the first frame of the film, a sense of realism is felt–which was a stark contrast to the stylized worlds of Beauty and Perdition. I can see what attracted him to Jarhead.  It’s essentially a war film about nothing. The Seinfeld of war films.

I can see him wanting to explore men who were all wanting something yet are all trapped in an almost primal state. They play pranks on each other, they quote Darth Vader from Star Wars, and they all end up with non-remarkable lives.

At the time I thought Mendes couldn’t make a more emotionally devastating film…I was wrong.

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Image via Paramount Vantage

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Seven years later and I still have very conflicted feelings about Revolutionary Road.

On one hand, it’s by far Mendes’ best work when it comes to directing his actors.

The opening five minutes features some of the best acting you will ever see. The moment DiCaprio’s fist hits his car in frustration as Kate Winslet sobs uncontrollably, I could feel Mendes applauding himself.

On the other hand, you find yourself rewinding the film, wishing you could go back in time before this film contaminated your soul. It doesn’t work, I’ve tried.

The film is constantly depressing and features some of the most unlikeable characters ever put to celluloid. Reuniting DiCaprio and Winslet (who was his wife at the time), was a grand opportunity to make another box office smash.

Mendes didn’t want that. Instead Mendes pushed each actor to their limits.

DiCaprio and Winslet play a married couple living in suburbia during the 1950’s and they hate each other.

Some say, “That’s it. That the whole movie.” But the commentary on conformity and the pursuit of one’s “happiness” is hard to ignore as the film goes on.

They are so spiteful to one another that it’s like watching a fire that you can’t turn away from.  There’s a confrontation scene that has DiCaprio crying for half of it and Winslet being so cold blooded that I couldn’t watch her in movies the same way anymore.  He knocked it out of the park directing this movie, which resulted in his most divisive film because of how many people love and hate it.

Thankfully he changed up the tone for his next film.

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Image via Focus Pictures

Away We Go (2009)

A year after the emotional rollercoaster known as Revolutionary Road came out, Mendes wanted to focus on a different type of couple.  In a post Juno world, a film like Away We Go was always going to be seen as quirky diversion instead of the wonderful ensemble piece it always was.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph have amazing chemistry playing soon-to-be parents trying to find a place to call home.  I feel like Mendes identified with this more than his other stories because there’s a sense of discovery being made with each scene that unfolds. Humor is also used a lot here and I laughed quite a bit at the eccentric side characters.

What a refreshing change of pace after witnessing Kate Winslet emotionally break me.

The main thing I liked about Away We Go he was able to tell this story without the usual technical flourishes his first four films had. He lets characters and the story lead the way and the visuals compliment what’s at hand, especially the opening scene  set in a bed room that uses non flashy lights and a more realistic use of color. It’s really refreshing and sparse.

I thought he was going to transition into making smaller films like this for now on and boy was I wrong.

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Image via MGM

Skyfall (2012)

How does an Oscar winning director follow up his smallest film?

By making a James Bond movie of course!

When the news of this hit the internet, I couldn’t believe that he was going from American Beauty to James Bond.

Was he going through a creative crisis? Was the script amazing? Is he in love with James Bond like the rest of the world?

My brain went to overdrive trying to figure out how he was going to bring his dramatic stamp on James Bond’s character. Thirty minutes into the film I could see why he chose such a project.  Mendes had the rare opportunity to explore Bond’s past and to explore the depths of betrayal.

To truly make his Bond film feel different, he brought back Roger Deakins and created a visual style unlike any other Bond film. Critics ate it up, resulting in Deakins being nominated for his work here and people are still drooling over the cinematography. I still hear people swoon over the shanghai scene like it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen.

I feel like Mendes is Bond in this film, he did his job and needed to escape for a while. Mendes was gone for three years focusing on what he loved, the theater and came back when he was ready to get back to work.  A billion dollars worldwide later, he took the franchise to new creative heights.

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Image via MGM

Spectre (2015)

And now here we are…his newest film and last stab at James Bond.  I’m surprised he’s back at the helm but I’m happy he’s going even deeper down Bond’s dark past.

The marketing has focused on the spectacle and the evil organization the film is centered around, but I can’t get the cinematography out of my head.  The expert lighting and composition matched with the classic look of film makes for an exciting image.

I have a feeling him and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema are going to give us the best looking Bond film yet, sorry Skyfall! After he’s done doing press for this, I hope Mendes returns to the simplicity and warmth of Away We Go.  There’s a lot more original characters out there that need the Mendes treatment and I can’t wait to see which ones he chooses.

Spectre opens in US theaters November 6

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