AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
Some directors share their development with the public over the course of a lifetime. More rare, however, is the director who arrives on the scene fully formed, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Sam Mendes is just such a director, and in twelve short years, he has already cultivated an impressive body of work that will live on in the cinematic consciousness for quite some time.
My first experience with a Mendes film was 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION. I sought out the film after seeing a trailer for it in the theatre, having been incredibly compelled by its imagery and tone. I remember being enamored by the artistry and mastery of craft on display, and had no idea it was only Mendes’ second feature.
My awareness of Mendes as a director wouldn’t mature until college, when a freshman creative writing class had 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY on the syllabus. It was only after seeing that film that I realized Mendes was a significant force to be reckoned with in cinema.
Filmmaking comes as something of a second career for Mendes, who already had an impressive body of work under his belt in the English theater scene. A graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge, Mendes became known as an accomplished stage director, helming productions like CABARET, OLIVER!, and GYPSY, while attracting seasoned and highly-respected stars of the stage and screen. It was only a matter of time until cinema came knocking.
Due to his background in the theater, there’s a distinct “stage”-y character to his film direction, as if the edges of the frame were just another proscenium wall. Character and story are front-and-center, with the immediacy of theater’s live performance, but with none of the showboating or exaggeration.
His films are intensely personal, subtle, and delicate, yet strong in their convictions and dramaturgy. It’s hard to discern exactly who his cinematic influences are, if only because it’s clear that he draws on a entirely different set of influences from another medium to inform his direction.
Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols seem like safe bets, but only because he draws from them almost unilaterally for very specific projects. His own style is more formalist, understated, and classical. Like Kubrick, Mendes is very precise and economical. Like Nichols, he revels in character and the natural humorous moments that occur, in addition to the serious stuff.
Mendes is one of the lucky few filmmakers who was lauded with the highest industry honors on his first time out. He had previous experience in directing for the screen, helming television adaptions for CABARET (1993), and COMPANY (1996), but 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY was his first legitimately cinematic excursion.
Springing from the mind of screenwriter Alan Ball, AMERICAN BEAUTY is many things. It’s a phenomenon hailing from humble beginnings. It’s a dark satire on American suburban ennui. It’s a coming-of-age story about the loss of innocence. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of temptation.
It’s a brooding murder mystery. There’s a lot of themes at work, but Mendes masterfully blends it all together into a tone that’s appropriate and cohesive. For me, the most resonant theme in the film is the regression of traditional masculinity.
The film was part of a growing chorus that bemoaned the cultural castration of man during the late 90’s; films like David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB (1999) and Mike Judge’s OFFICE SPACE(1999) featured similar working stiffs experiencing a radical reawakening of manhood.
The threat to conventional notions of what it means to be a man are present everywhere in the story: a sexless marriage, repressed homosexual desires, the impotence that comes with having to be a role model, the gay couple just trying to live a normal life next door. AMERICAN BEAUTY , for me personally, is about the loss and reclamation of masculinity in all its forms.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has been in a state of sedation for as long as he can remember. The highlight of his day is his daily masturbation session in the shower. The quality of his day spirals downward from there, from his soul-crushingly bland sales job, to his increasing invisibility to his wife and daughter at home.
He sleepwalks through life, having accepted the fact that this is his life now, and his best days are behind him. However, he experiences a radical midlife rejuvenation through his sexual fantasies about his daughter’s seductive friend (Mena Suvari), and the freedom he feels after being fired from his job. The story is framed by Lester’s voiceover narration, which provides a wry commentary on the proceedings as well as gives the film its narrative urgency when he announces that he’ll be dead in a year.
Indeed, it’s the post-death point of view that is one of the film’s most striking and soulful elements. The film strives for a realization of the beauty that exists just beyond the veil of reality, beyond what we can see. It’s hinted at in one of the film’s most infamous sequences: video footage of a plastic bag dancing in the wind while a young man remarks at how it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.
Sure, it’s been mocked within an inch of its life in the 10+ years since its release, but it’s hard not to be haunted by the quiet intensity of the moment. This invisible, yet tangible, grace and order to the seemingly chaotic universe is the heart of the story, evidenced by the film’s tagline: “look closer…”
Mendes is known for getting career-best performances from his actors, and AMERICAN BEAUTY starts off very strongly in that regard. As the emasculated, burnt-out Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey took home the Oscar for Best Actor. The character is very much a Willy Loman, DEATH OF A SALESMAN-type who expresses regret over the life he’s lived.
His redemption lies in a recapturing of youth and all its trappings: rebellion, sexual obsession, drug use, etc. Lester’s journey is incredibly compelling to watch, and Spacey’s performance is one for the cinematic history books. As Lester’s wife, Carolyn, Annette Bening is the spitting image of the frustrated suburban housewife.
As the family’s primary breadwinner, she feels a lot of pressure to succeed in her job as a real estate agent. Every inch of her, from her pantsuits to her Hilary Clinton-style haircut, exudes the powerful late-90’s woman image. However, despite her projections of success, she has incredible doubts about herself that have taken a terrible toll on her marriage. Bening makes Carolyn sympathetic, despite a role that frequently calls for her to be “the bad guy”.
The supporting cast is filled out with veteran character actors who all threaten to steal the show in their own right. As Lester and Carolyn’s teenage daughter Jane, former child actress Thora Birch is adolescent anxiety incarnate.
This was her first real “grown-up” role, and she embraces it entirely by laying herself bare before the audience (sometimes literally). Wes Bentley is haunting as the reclusive, aggressively insightful Ricky Fitts. His role is crucial to the movie, as it is the fulcrum on which both Jane and Lester’s character arcs pivot.
He is also the conduit for the film’s central theme of “beauty inherent in the mundane”, and monologues that can potentially come off as pretentious are performed with a wide-eyed wonder. As the seductress Angela, Mena Suvari gives herself entirely to the admittedly silly sexual fantasies Lester has about her.
She pulls off a balanced blend of the naive innocent and conceited sexual manipulator. She’s clearly living in an overcompensating fantasy of her own making, but even she reclaims her innocence in the end. (And in a strange connection to 1999’s AMERICAN PIE, which Suvari starred in, look for a silent cameo appearance by a pre-fame John Chu as a prospective house buyer.)
Any film with Peter Gallagher in the cast is a blessing, and AMERICAN BEAUTY features this exquisite lion of a man in spades. As the silver fox “Real Estate King”, Buddy Kane, Gallagher effortlessly captures the confident masculinity that Lester had been so desperately grasping for.
His hysterical sex scene with Bening is one of the standout moments of the film, but underlying the humor of his character is the very real notion that oftentimes the image and projection of success belies a very empty, unrewarding core. That said, Gallagher’s Buddy Kane is probably my favorite character in the entire film.
Of course, any discussion about AMERICAN BEAUTY’s cast wouldn’t be complete without the powerful turn by Chris Cooper as Colonel Frank Fitz, a hardass military man with repressed homosexual longings. His character is fascinating to watch, as he at first literally trembles with a vitriolic hate towards gays.
We’re quick to write him off as another homophobic right-wing dinosaur, but like the film’s tagline implores, when we look closer at him, we find that his homophobic rantings are an expression of the crippling shame he feels towards his own urges.
His character arc is compellingly rendered in a vulnerable moment with Lester– a moment that will have fatal consequences for them both. It was a career-making performance for Cooper, and he continues to be one of the most compelling character actors working today.
Despite such a strong cast delivering career-best performances, the star of the show here really is Mendes. With a subtle, understated direction evoking the dark corners of a Norman Rockwell painting, Mendes crafts a haunting experience that lingers in the mind.
Working with legendary Director of Photography Conrad Hall, Mendes conjures up a midcentury aesthetic in the trappings of modern culture (it could be argued that the suburbs as an institution are an idyllic distillation of 1950’s sentiments about lifestyle and the American Dream).
The filmic, Anamorphic image utilizes a natural level of contrast, with even, neutral tones and a saturated color palette. The color red is used to striking effect throughout the film, acting as a visual metaphor for vitality and passion.
This can be seen in the roses around the house, in Lester’s fantasies about Angela, Carolyn’s dress in the final scene, the garage lights, and finally, in the blood dripping from the bullet wound in Lester’s head. It should be noted that the film’s title refers to a specific breed of rose famous for its bold, alluring color as well as its tendency to reveal an underlying rot upon closer inspection.
It’s a fantastic metaphor for the suburbs as a dramatically relevant setting, as well as the crippling decay underneath fake smiles and friendly waves. However, Mendes and Hall don’t stick exclusively to this visual look. Lester’s fantasy sequences are rendered in a more stylized contrast, with natural lighting that’s slightly more intense, and colors that are slightly more concentrated.
These sequences allow the film to revel in some truly arresting imagery, like Suvari lying naked amongst a bed of roses on the ceiling. The film also switches to black and white towards the end, as Lester reminisces on happier times in his life that have long since past. It’s a poetic, evocative rendering of that old “life flashing before your eyes” yarn, and strengthens the emotional catharsis of the film’s denouement.
The camerawork is precise and mechanical, observing the action with an objective gaze that places the focus on the performances. Mendes and Hall keep the camera confined to a tripod, mainly utilizing a dolly whenever the camera is moved. The dolly shots are well thought-out and gracefully executed, bringing a subtle power to the subjects of the shot.
Composition is traditional, balanced, and artful– at many times, evoking a proscenium-style staging (such as the dinner scenes). Mendes utilizes composition as an overt, as well as subtle, storytelling tool throughout. The scene where Lester is fired comes to mind– Mendes frames the shots as a way to silently communicate power dynamics.
Lester’s boss is shot close-up and from below, giving him an authoritative presence, while Lester is seen from above, almost dwarfed by the scale of the room. No flashy techniques here, just good, old-fashioned visual storytelling.
It should be noted that the camera only goes handheld during certain instances– namely, when Ricky’s video footage is cut into the story. Thankfully, Mendes uses actual, interlaced video and embraces the flaws of the format to make the presentation more realistic.
The film opens with such a sequence, throwing the film into mystery when Thora Birch’s character addresses her desire to kill Lester to the camera. Of course, we later learn that in the context of the moment, she was joking playfully, but it’s a compelling way to start a film and shows a great degree of confidence on Mendes’ part.
The music of the film is as iconic as its story and performances. Composing legend Thomas Newman provides a minimalist, percussive score that’s extremely haunting in its simplicity. Working primarily with xylophones and piano chords, Newman allows the music to complement the visuals without ever overpowering them, yet at the same time creates compositions that linger in the mind.
During the film’s fantasy sequences, Newman utilizes an arrhythmic clash of cymbals to create a seductive, otherworldly-aura. AMERICAN BEAUTY also includes a variety of source music that reads like a survey of popular twentieth century music.
Carolyn is defined by her love for Frank Sinatra and his ilk, which she plays repeatedly during family dinner time in a bid to project some semblance of wealth, success, and sophistication. Conversely, Lester experiences his reawakening to the sounds of classic 80’s rock like Rick Springfield. The film closes with Elliot Smith covering The Beatles’ “Because”, which brings everything full circle in a contemplative tone.
When AMERICAN BEAUTY was released in 1999, it was showered with accolades, most notably the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Twelve years on, the film has aged well, despite it being firmly rooted in the post-corporate, dotcom boom days of the late 90’s.
Alan Ball’s dialogue comes off as on the nose at many points, but it can be argued that it works within his satirical intentions. Indeed, the film is very, darkly funny in both overt and subtle ways. For instance, Carolyn drives an SUV– but why? She only has one kid, and driving around the suburbs isn’t exactly “off-roading”.
It’s a great jab at that late 90’s/early aught’s notion that driving a big SUV projected success and status. I saw it firsthand myself when I was growing up, as even my own family fell prey to the SUV hysteria. Ball’s satirical intentions are also present in Angela’s character-summarizing line: “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary”.
In theory, I agree with the sentiment, but the film is about finding the extraordinary within the ordinary; Angela is too focused on surface beauty to see it. Understandably, it’s obscenely rare to knock a masterpiece out of the park on your first time at bat, but Mendes has managed to do just that.
AMERICAN BEAUTY is the kind of film that many directors work their entire life towards making, and most never even come close. Mendes’ debut is a bold character piece that implores its audience to actively engage in the philosophical debate at the heart of the story.
It hooks us with the lurid promise of a murder mystery, but its objective is something else entirely. In the wake of AMERICAN BEAUTY’s success, Mendes emerged as a masterful artist poised to deliver some of the most compelling films of our time.
ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)
2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION was the first film by Sam Mendes that I ever saw. As I wrote previously, I remembered being captivated by the imagery on display during the theatrical trailer, and sought it out on DVD once it was available.
Having seen it on small screens at a standard resolution for many years, watching it again recently in high definition was like experiencing it for the first time. Ten years after its release, ROAD TO PERDITION stands the test of time as a cinematic masterpiece that is (so far) the crown jewel of Mendes’ filmography and deserves a spot on the list of the greatest films of all time.
After achieving the highest industry honors for his debut film (1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY), Mendes faced the enviable dilemma of what to tackle as a follow-up. He had his pick of any film in development, but he went with an adaptation of a little-known graphic novel about small-time crime bosses during the Great Depression.
Coming off the dialogue-heavy chamber drama of AMERICAN BEAUTY, Mendes sought to harness the visual power of film to tell his story, both as a means of advancing the plot and of communicating subtext and central themes. What results is a subtle, deeply affective visual experience worthy of the ages.
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a mob enforcer to crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), carrying out the Rooney family’s dirty work. However, when his son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) becomes curious about what his father does for a living and stows away in his father’s car, he witnesses the true, murderous nature of his father’s work.
Acting brashly, John’s grown son Connor (Daniel Craig) murders Sullivan’s wife and youngest boy in cold blood. Sullivan and Michael Jr. must leave everything behind in the middle of the night and make their way to refuge in the town of Perdition, while Sullivan schemes up a way to avenge his family’s deaths.
While the storyline is admittedly pulpy gangster fare, the performances are of a first-rate, Oscar-worthy quality. As the morally ambiguous Michael Sullivan, Tom Hanks (and his mustache) injects a compelling pathos into his portrayal as a troubled gangster.
Hanks’ Sullivan, while a murderer, is a family man and a man of honor, but he holds them at arm’s length– as if his actions made him unworthy of their love. Hanks is quiet, letting his piercing eyes do the bulk of the emoting. In eschewing his traditional good-guy image, Hanks is compelling and unpredictable.
It’s truly one of his finest hours as a performer. Tyler Hoechlin is similarly effective as Sullivan’s son, Michael Jr. He’s wide-eyed and innocent, but he takes after his father, possessing the same darkness deep within. He’s the emotional center of the father/son redemption arc, and if his performance was off by any one note, the whole thing could have collapsed.
Thankfully, Hoechlin delivers an understated depiction of a curious boy forced to grow up quickly in a harsh world. The supporting cast is phenomenal, filled with some truly great actors. Paul Newman, in one of his last film appearances, plays crime boss John Rooney with a grandfatherly charm and a bittersweet twinkle in his eye.
His Rooney is a man of great compassion and dignity, and commands a strong following within his community. Indeed, if his business dealings weren’t illegal in nature, he might be a great statesman or even a president. Reflecting the father/son arc, Newman is a father figure to Sullivan, who mourns the unravelling of their relationship while steadfastly doing what he has to in order to keep his business thriving.
This relationship reaches its beautiful denouement when, shortly before Sullivan guns Newman down in the street, Newman looks at him with those big, soulful blue eyes and whispers: “I’m glad it’s you”. Daniel Craig, largely unknown to audiences in 2002, makes his first appearance in a Mendes film as Rooney’s son, Conor.
Even this early in his career, Craig possesses an icy charisma that’s captivating and mysterious. In the wake of his recent success as James Bond, it’s very strange to hear Craig speak in a flawless American accent. It’s a little distracting, more so now than it was then, but it helps put distance between Bond and his performance here.
As the film’s primary antagonist, Craig is dark and brooding, oozing envy at his father’s preference for Sullivan over him. It’s a slimy role that Craig pulls off effortlessly. But, perhaps the more cinematically captivating antagonist is Jude Law’s Maguire– a crime scene photographer that also does a little bit of killing on the side.
Law eschews his handsome, leading-man image entirely by adopting a gaunt, pale, and balding look. His icy, calculating stare belies the churning machinery in his head. Maguire is an incredibly intelligent man, and is able to stay right on the heels of Sullivan and son as they make their way to Perdition.
It’s clear that Law revels in the chance to play someone so off-putting, and the result is one of the more compelling screen villains in recent history. He’s a chameleon that blends into the shadows, and shows up where you least expect (a fact that proves to be all too relevant in the film’s final moments).
Filling out the cast is a slew of character actors making brief appearances. Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up as Sullivan’s doomed wife, largely blending into the scenery and being indistinctive. Stanley Tucci plays Frank Nitti, a bookie/underboss for Al Capone and a personal friend of the Rooney family.
His character is buttoned-up, sensible, and pragmatic, and also gets a chance to showcase a tender, caring side when Sullivan comes to him for help. Ciaran Hinds has a small, but pivotal role in Finn McGovern, a drunkard with an axe to grind towards Rooney, and whose murder kickstarts the entire plot.
Dylan Baker appears as Rooney’s accountant, adopting an effete, fey manner that tricks his ego into thinking he’s a more important man than he really is. In ROAD TO PERDITION, Mendes has assembled an eclectic, highly respectable cast that commands your attention and your admiration.
Simply put, the film is one of the most gorgeous-looking works in recent history. Mendes collaborated with Director of Photography Conrad Hall twice during his career, and both efforts (ROAD TO PERDITION and AMERICAN BEAUTY) resulted in an Oscar win for Hall.
Personally, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The sensibilities of the two men gel together in a compelling and beautiful way, and there’s no telling what visual beauty might have transpired in further collaborations. Unfortunately, their partnership ended when Hall passed away shortly after winning the Oscar, but thankfully, Hall’s last effort is easily his best work.
A masterful capstone to a legendary career. Shot on Anamorphic Super 35mm film, Mendes and Hall imbue the image with a high contrast, letting large swaths of the frame fall into darkness. Very rarely is darkness and the absence of light used to such dramatic effect than in ROAD TO PERDITION.
Colors are desaturated, favoring a black, white, and brown color palette. It’s said that Hall wanted to shoot and light the film as if it were a black-and-white piece, which results in a very distinct, stark look. The image is gritty and appropriately grainy, adding a real substance and weight to the image.
Indeed, this is how Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009) should have looked– if anyone ever needs a quick reference on the differences between film and digital formats, they only need to look at both of these films side by side.
Mendes frames the story with striking compositions complemented by deliberate dolly movements. Each shot, each camera move is designed to tell the story with maximum effect. Despite its ugly subject matter, ROAD TO PERDITION is one of the most elegantly-shot films I’ve ever seen. Truly a masterwork on a technical level.
The film already has a lot of visual distinction going for it, what with the striking, Depression-period accurate detail and wintery Northeast setting. A lot of the film paints a portrait of the seedy world of adulthood as observed from the perspective of a wide-eyed child– most notably the murder scene that serves as the film’s inciting event.
Every boy is curious about what his father does for a living, and ROAD TO PERDITION not only uses it as inspiration on how the story unfolds, but also as a poignant theme. The bonding of father and son on the road makes for many of the film’s most effective moments and makes the climax much more devastating.
Sullivan knows he is beyond saving, but over the course of the film, he realizes that he can save his son from a similar fate, and in the process experiences a redemption all his own. The film’s story provides ample inspiration for Mendes to inject his signature, understated directorial flair.
Ciaran Hind’s murder is depicted in a surreal slow-motion moment, amplified by loud, percussive gunfire (not unlike the sound design for Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995)). A Sullivan family dinner sequence is composed in a dioramic wide-shot, like the Burnham dinner sequences of AMERICAN BEAUTY.
A cat-and-mouse dialogue sequence set in a roadside diner between Sullivan and Maguire generates a slow-burn tension and illustrates that Maguire is not a threat to be taken lightly. And most importantly, Mendes crafts a reference-quality scene in regards to direction, cinematography and sound design when Sullivan finally confronts Rooney in the rain on a dark city street.
When I was tasked with showing a film scene to analyze during a high school playwriting class, I brought in ROAD TO PERDITION and showed that scene. Even then I knew it was one of the most pure moments of cinema that had ever been crafted. My words can’t do it justice, so I’ll just embed it here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
You might have noticed that haunting music, which is the product of Mendes’ second collaboration with composer Thomas Newman. Continuing on his minimalist streak, Newman crafts a highly memorable score comprised of soaring strings, delicate piano chords, and even brassy bagpipes.
The music complements Mendes’ intentions of crafting a near-silent film, and allows for every subtle moment to resonate deeply. Newman’s score, like Mendes’ film, will stick with you long after the lights come up. In summary, ROAD TO PERDITION is a severely underrated modern classic whose stature has only grown over time.
Mendes’ career would take a stylistic turn after this film, (mainly due to the change in cinematographers following Hall’s death) becoming notably less formal and constructionist. Despite its modest box office success, ROAD TO PERDITION proved that Mendes wasn’t a flash in the pan, but a serious, highly observant drama director working at the top of his game.
Every director worth his salt seems, at one point or another, to tackle a war film. Often, the particular war or setting chosen serves as a compelling prism with which to gaze into a given director’s own psyche and mentality about the nature of conflict.
In 2005, Sam Mendes followed up his masterful 2002 effort ROAD TO PERDITION with JARHEAD, a chronicle of the First Gulf War as experienced by one Marine. What results is a powerful story about war as a state of limbo, told by a director with a firm grasp on characterization and mood.
Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) lived an aimless life until he joined the Marine Corps. Describing his choice of enlisting as getting “lost on the way to college”, we observe the dehumanizing boot camp process, as well as experience Swofford’s evolving (or, perhaps, devolving) mindset via a numb voiceover that frames the story.
Halfway through the film, Swofford’s unit is sent out into the Kuwaiti desert for Operation Desert Shield, wasting away in the hot sun for months as they look after US interests in the region. When conflict flares up, and Operation Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm, Swofford and his men find themselves in a war where the conflict doesn’t manifest itself in enemy combatants, but rather in their own internal psyches.
As a rule, Mendes commands career-best performances, and he more or less achieves it with JARHEAD. As the film’s lead, Gyllenhaal is a paradox– an empty vessel, yet also a rebellious questioner of authority. He wants to be a ruthless war machine, but he has a profound empathy and respect for human life.
It’s a manic, schizophrenic existence that’s not unlike the military itself. He deals with his fears and anxieties by confronting them head-on, yet in oblique ways. Plagued by suspicions that his girlfriend is cheating on him, he seeks out a videotape of a fellow Marine’s wife sleeping with another man, just to experience how it feels (It’s no coincidence that the video was taped over a VHS copy of Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1979), a classic film about male loyalty and friendship in the midst of war).
Swofford stands exposed in the midst of battle, peacefully letting flecks of shrapnel and sand flutter across his face like snow. He’s a living ghost, haunted by the chaos of war that he never got to experience. It’s one of Gyllenhaal’s best roles, as he gives himself fully over to Swofford in both body and spirit.
The mostly-male cast is filled out with recognizable faces as well as up-and-comers. Peter Sarsgaard, as Swofford’s sniping partner, brings a dark, zen-like calm to the proceedings, but whose own internal demons threaten to destroy him. Sarsgaard delivers an unhinged performance that reflects the impotent frustration that all the Marines feel during their time in the desert.
Jamie Foxx assumes the R. Lee Ermey archetype as the hardass Staff Sergeant Sykes. Sykes is a man whose love for his job runs deep, almost to a psychopathic level, and he both intimidates and emboldens his men into becoming the killing machines he needs them to be.
Foxx delivers an intense performance, playing it dead serious and erasing any memory of him as a comedian. Lucas Black, most recognizable from his role in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT(2006), gets a fair amount of screen-time as a fellow knucklehead grunt, but doesn’t get much in the way of any significant character development.
Perhaps the most compelling of Swofford’s unit is Evan Jones as Dave “Squishy Face” Fowler, who gradually reveals the depths of his twisted-ness when he develops a strange fixation for burnt corpses. Chris Cooper, in his second collaboration with Mendes since 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, makes a cameo appearance as Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski.
Channeling his overcompensating military macho man from that film, Cooper gives a pep talk to the newly-arrived Marines that fetishizes war and killing. 24’s Dennis Haysbert also appears, in a small role that I like to call Captain Pooper.
A stickler for pulling rank, Haysbert later becomes an important catalyst for Sarsgaard’s emotional breakdown. It’s also worth noting that THE OFFICE’s John Krasinski apparently shows up (although I never saw him) as a character named Corporal Harrigan. Krasinski would later go on to star for Mendes in AWAY WE GO (2009).
Visually, JARHEAD represents a stylistic deviation for Mendes. After the passing of his previous collaborator Conrad Hall, Mendes struck up a new relationship with Director of Photography Roger Deakins (my favorite DP). Mendes eschews his minimalist, classical aesthetic for a modern, gritty feel by utilizing predominantly handheld cameras and close-up framing.
The image is high in contrast, with severely desaturated colors that blend together in a tan, olive green, and brown color palette. There are some dolly shots, mainly seen in stylized flashback tableaus that provide dioramic glimpses of Swofford’s background framed through a shutting door, but most of the film is firmly grounded in a shaky reality.
Interestingly, most of the desert scenes adopt an overexposed, bleached-out look where the desert blends in with the sky. It creates a surreal limbo effect that perfectly communicates the Marines’ state of mind and reinforces the film’s central theme of being adrift in an emotional wasteland.
The editing, by famed editor Walter Murch, is quick, precise, and dynamic. The pace is substantially quicker than Mendes’ previous efforts, and the result is a much more energetic story that feels contemporary and incredibly visual.
The soundtrack, with an original score by key Mendes collaborator Thomas Newman, is equally strong. Newman’s score is percussive and exciting, laced with a Middle Eastern character that aptly communicates the setting and the ideology of its inhabitants.
A variety of early 90’s pop music populates the film as well, starting with the low-key reggae track “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, performed by Bob Marley. Nirvana, The Doors, Public Enemy, and Kanye West all make aural appearances as well, infusing the film with a gritty, masculine musical quality.
The themes of JARHEAD are potent, lending to some truly memorable set pieces. A recurring motif is the comparison of Operation Desert Storm to the Vietnam War. The soldiers, themselves the children of Vietnam vets, yearn to fight their own war, but the specter of battle that emotionally scarred and marooned their elders threatens to consume them too.
Allusions to Vietnam are made frequently: one scene shows the Marines cheering and hollering during a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW’s (1979) infamous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence. Helicopters fly over ground troops in the desert, blasting popular music from the Vietnam era as a soldier opines “why can’t they play our music?”.
The structure of the film itself plays out like a contemporary update to Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), with the first half set in boot camp and the second half in battle. That being said, Mendes finds many moments that distinguish JARHEAD from other films of its ilk.
A scene featuring the Marines playing tackle football in full gas-mask gear comes to mind. A conflict in which ground troops never fire a single shot causes those same troops to unload their ammo into the sky as an emotional release, perhaps in an attempt to shoot God himself out of the heavens.
The Marines are seen at the end of the film, in civilian clothes and working normal jobs– their minds unable to fully move on from their time in the desert. All these moments, and more, come together to form a deeply philosophical, internalized story of armed conflict.
But perhaps the most profound moment for me is the moment in which the Vietnam comparisons come full circle. As the Marines triumphantly return home, a frazzled Vietnam vet storms their bus and congratulates them on winning the war “clean and true”, and then asks to ride with them.
It’s an incredibly cathartic moment where a troubled veteran finds solace in the victories of the next generation. The moment gets to the root of JARHEAD’s thesis: every conflict is different, but the experience is always the same. In that experience lies brotherhood and a sense of belonging.
JARHEAD is ultimately a descent into the hell of the mind. This is reflected with Mendes’ increasingly dream-like landscapes, which morph from drab, colorless flatlands to long stretches of darkness punctuated by orange towers of fire and raining oil.
It is here that the Marines must confront their deepest demons and battle for their very souls. While not quite a full-on masterpiece like AMERICAN BEAUTY or ROAD TO PERDITION, Mendes crafts a superb character drama wrapped up in the desert camo trappings of a war film.
It’s as psychedelic an experience as any Vietnam film before it, and it won’t be shaken easily. JARHEAD sheds much-needed light on the players in a major conflict about which very little is known.
AWAY WE GO (2009)
Following the harrowing chamber drama of 2008’s REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, it’s understandable that director Sam Mendes would want to tackle something a little bit more light-hearted. In his quickest turnaround of a project to date, Mendes returned to screens just a year later with AWAY WE GO, a heartfelt comedy about the search for a place called home.
Bert (John Krasinksi) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), are an unmarried couple expecting their first child. When Bert’s parents announce their intent to move to Belgium before the baby is due, the young couple decide to move somewhere else and start a new life of their own making.
The question is, however, where will they go? Together, they embark on a cross-country tour and reconnect with old friends and family in an attempt to find that most elusive place of all: home. As Mendes’ first outright comedy, the performances by nature aren’t going to be stuffed with gravitas and importance, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less good.
Given the chance to let his hair down, Mendes reveals an ability to create touching, comic moments of fleeting beauty. In his first substantial feature film role outside of TV’s THE OFFICE, the bearded Krasinski draws from his playful public image but downplays any hint of cynicism or snark.
Despite the seeming wealth of his parents, he appears to be scraping by financially. He lives in a broken-down, uninsulated dwelling in the woods that’s prone to frequent electrical failure. He ekes out his humble existence with Verona, played by SNL’s Maya Rudolph in what’s also her first big film role.
Verona is feisty, independent, and fiercely loyal. The path to parenthood carries extra emotional weight for her, due to both her parents dying when she was in college. Together, their chemistry is subtle, natural, and incredibly relatable. Mendes does a great job creating a relationship dynamic that feels tangible. Without it, the entire film could fall apart.
Like Homer’s The Odyssey, the film is comprised of a series of encounters between a variety of eccentric characters, played by an eclectic supporting cast. Most have only one scene or sequence to carry, but each one is memorable and helps inform Bert and Verona’s development.
A bearded Jeff Daniels (perfect casting, by the way) and Catherine O’Hara play Bert’s parents in such a way that it’s entirely conceivable that a man like Bert would be their son. Daniels and O’Hara have a tough job, as they could potentially come off as supremely selfish in their decision to abandon Bert in his time of need to go fulfill some lifelong fantasy of living abroad, but they bring so much charm and warmth to their performances that it’s impossible not to like them.
It’s unclear where the film takes place at the start, but it suggests a cold, winter-y Northeastern setting. Through their travels, Bert and Verona encounter a wide variety of locales, each one rendered in quirky detail. Commendably, the screenplay doesn’t have them going on a whirlwind tour of famous American cities and landmarks.
Rather, the story sheds some light on locales both mundane (Tucson, Phoenix, and Madison) and glamorous (Montreal and Miami). Each location has an emotional significance for either Bert or Verona, as each place has a member of extended family or friend living there.
In Tucson, Lily (Allison Janney) and Lowell (a hilariously droll Jim Gaffigan) exhibit a trashy lifestyle that reminds Verona that sometimes past friends stay in the past for a reason. In Phoenix, Verona reconnects with her younger sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) and finds herself confronting the painful memory of her parents’ passing.
In Madison, Maggie Gylenhaal steals the show as Bert’s cousin LN, a new-age hippie that rejects most contemporary notions of child-rearing, lifestyle, and hygiene. Montreal finds college friends Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) living a seemingly-happy and drama-free life, but secretly grappling with the pain of being unable to conceive a child of their own.
Finally, Paul Schneider takes charge of the Miami segment as Bert’s brother, Courtney, who’s trying to keep his family together as it falls apart around him. All of these characters have an effect on Bert and Verona’s journey, and ultimately moves them to decide where they will put down roots.
As a rule, comedies don’t require much in the way of a dynamic visual style. Mendes adheres to that mentality for the most part, but he still finds ample opportunity to inject his personal aesthetic and give the film a distinctive look.
Working for the first time with Director of Photography Ellen Kuras, Mendes creates an Anamorphic image with a middling contrast whose blacks fall off into the blue/green spectrum, and whose colors are naturally saturated.
Kuras and Mendes create a subtle, distinctive look for each locale. For instance, Phoenix and Tucson are rendered in heavy orange tones, Madison in lush greens, and Montreal in crisp reds and yellows. Framing follows the typical Mendes mandate of wide, artfully composed shots achieved through the use of a tripod or dolly.
Mendes’ classical, formalist inclinations work well for the tone he’s established, and help keep the focus on the performances. My only qualm with the look is more of a personal pet peeve than anything. Sometimes, the tone is a little too twee or precious at times for my liking. However, it never threatens the integrity of the story, so it’s really just a minor quibble.
Interestingly enough, just as he had foregone the use of regular cinematographer Roger Deakins in favor of Kuras, Mendes foregoes the use of regular composer Thomas Newman in favor of a score sourced from Alexi Murdoch songs. A popular musician in his own right, Murdoch repurposes his quiet, moody folk songs to fit the film’s emotional development.
The use of his hit “All Of My Days” recurs throughout the film as an unofficial theme song. In his break from regular collaborators, it becomes apparent that AWAY WE GO served as a kind of artistic refreshing for Mendes. It may turn off fans who have come to see those relationships as part of a stylistic whole, but it’s good to incorporate new ideas and points of view every once in a while.
The story has some very potent themes, the biggest of which is the search for home. It’s important to make the distinction between a house and a home. A house is a structure, with four walls and a roof. A home is a place with special significance, a little slice of land that you raise your family on.
Early adulthood is a complex emotional state, as most people that age are essentially homeless. By that, I don’t mean they’re literally living on the streets. But, since they have yet to settle down and raise a family of their own, they haven’t established a place of their own to call “home”.
AWAY WE GO takes this search for home and adapts it into the form of a road trip comedy. The film’s main message is that there’s many places one can live, but there is truly only place that can be home. In a nice touch, when Bert and Verona finally do find home at the end of the film, the actual geographic location is very deliberately not revealed.
In the course of Mendes’ development as a filmmaker, the film is somewhat of a curiosity. It’s an independent film by a decidedly commercial filmmaker with classical tendencies. It’s a much smaller film in a canon whose earlier films had previously been only getting bigger. It’s the one comedy in a filmography of brooding dramas.
But, like I said before, AWAY WE GO finds Mendes at a point in his career where perhaps a creative refreshening seemed necessary. The fact that he’s stretching outside of his comfort zone and voluntarily working with less resources than he’s accustomed to will only lead to growth and further mastery of his craft. AWAY WE GO certainly isn’t Mendes’ best film, nor do I suspect that it’s a truly great film, but it’s definitely an underrated film that’s still relevant and touching nearly four years later.
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008)
In 2008, Sam Mendes teamed up with Hollywood heavyweight producer Scott Rudin and directed REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, a 1950’s-set chamber drama about a rotting marriage stifled by a normal existence in the suburbs. It’s familiar ground that Mendes had already tread in 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, but this time his vision is more stark.
More realistic. More devastating. It’s by no means an inherently enjoyable experience, but it’s a compelling one that is impeccably crafted– marking a return to form to the aesthetic style that made Mendes a household name.
It’s 1955, and Frank and April Wheeler are surrounded by the trappings of midcentury prosperity. They have it all: a nice house in the Connecticut suburbs, their youth, two healthy children, and a car. But, much like their Burnham family counterparts, the Wheelers are stuck in a fundamental state of discontent.
Trying to break out of this funk, April proposes that they sell the house and relocate to Paris, living a romantic life abroad. As the Wheelers make preparations, a surprise pregnancy and the opportunity of advancement at Frank’s job threaten to derail their plans, and subsequently, their marriage.
The story takes life advancements that would normally be greeted with great celebration, and twists them into harbingers of doom. Having a reputation for coaxing impeccable performances from actors, Mendes has no trouble assembling an eclectic and powerful cast.
In their first team-up since 1997’s TITANIC, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet project an image of success while wallowing in crushing uncertainty and doubt– indeed, the movie isn’t even five minutes in when they begin bickering and fighting with each other.
As Frank, DiCaprio uses his natural charm and intelligence to duplicitous effect. A stymied husband who feels himself becoming slowly boxed in by his responsibilities, Frank lashes out with a passion that he’s unable to channel into a positive marriage.
He makes a point of forcing his wife to talk to him whenever he senses something is wrong, but it’s more so out of maintaining the status quo of a happy home instead of getting to the real root of the problem. As Frank’s wife, April, Winslet signifies the burgeoning independence and assertion of femininity that the 1960’s would bring.
It is she who proposes the relocation to Paris, and who steers the course of events that lead to the film’s tragic denouement. Together, they strike up a very different dynamic than they did as “Jack & Rose”, conjuring up an acidic chemistry that singes the screen.
As most of the film’s development plays out in dialogue, DiCaprio and Winslet are given no small amount of scene-chewing dialogue (most of which unfortunately comes off as on-the-nose and/or expositional). Their conflict feels very stage-y, but that’s to be expected from a director already well-known for his theater productions.
The supporting cast is filled out with less-known actors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t meet or exceed the quality of performance by the two leads. Yet another TITANIC co-star, Kathy Bates, plays the Wheeler’s real-estate agent-turned-neighbor/friend.
She becomes one of the sole female friends in April’s life, which is alienating due to her significant age difference. Bates performs admirably, and looks like she fits right in with the midcentury time period. Michael Shannon, one of my favorite actors ever, plays her son– a socially strange, fidgety man with a history of mental problems.
Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here, Shannon is absolutely magnetic. In a film full of self-deluded characters, leave it to the “crazy one” to be the voice of reason and logic, unafraid to call out their bullshit right to their faces. Shannon’s work on REVOLUTIONARY ROAD stands out as one of the best in a career dominated by amazing, memorable performances,
As the Wheeler’s only neighbors of the same age, Shep (David Harbour) and Milly (Kathryn Hahn) are their closest friends and confidants. Harbour is incredible as a man harboring a long-held yearning for April, and who resents himself for it.
I’m not too familiar with his other work, but his performance here guarantees that I’ll be paying attention the next time he shows up in a film. Dylan Baker, previously collaborating with Mendes in 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION, plays Frank’s work colleague– an effete, fancy boy that always sports a bow tie.
It’s not too dissimilar from his role in ROAD TO PERDITION, but Baker gives his performance a unique and memorable quality, mostly informed by the presence of that bow tie. Doe-eyed Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary film director Elia Kazan) plays an impressionable young secretary that Frank sleeps with throughout the film.
Her role is small, but her participation will have big consequences for Frank’s downfall. Working again with Director of Photography Roger Deakins, Mendes returns to his classical, minimalist roots. Creating an Anamorphic image that’s high in contrast, with saturated colors comprised of warm, neutral tones, Mendes establishes a realistic and tangible atmosphere.
He also uses a grey/beige palette to illustrate the monotony of the Wheeler’s existence: the colorless house, the sea of grey suits disembarking from commuter trains, etc. Compositions are wider and artfully-framed, achieved through the strategic use of tripod, dolly, and Steadicam shots.
As the marital discord grows, Mendes lets handheld camerawork become increasingly prevalent, signifying the characters’ chaotic state of mind. The production design, taking a page from the popular TV show MAD MEN, is impeccable in its period authenticity and dressing. All in all, Mendes creates a sumptuous visual look upon which to highlight the internal decay of his characters.
Thomas Newman returns to score the proceedings, crafting music that, much like his earlier work for Mendes, deals in piano chords and swelling string instruments. However, he also infuses an element of abstract ambience, which adds a brooding nature to the story.
The rest of the soundtrack is sourced from an eclectic mix of period pop songs that give a realistic sense of the era and the national mood. In telling the tale of a pair of bohemian scenesters turned conventional suburbanites, Mendes is certainly risking re-treadingAMERICAN BEAUTY territory.
However, there’s no Lester Burnham-esque reawakening or rejuvenation to be had here– only endless misery and suffering. Mendes’ tone is dead serious with very little levity, and as a result, it’s a tough experience to sit through.
The characters are energized by their romantic fantasy of an idealistic Paris that probably doesn’t exist. However, their dreams are done in by pragmatism and a sense of adult responsibility. These are all qualities that are encouraged in modern notions of adulthood, usually as a way to better ourselves.
In REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, however, those some life-affirming notions become a death sentence. The characters seek comfort in the danger/excitement of extramarital affairs, but even those prove to be of no energizing value in the end. (Also, is it just me, or is every male in the film a premature ejaculator?
I understand that period accuracy dictates the mentality that the man’s satisfaction was the priority, but….damn, they’re quick). Watching REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, I’m reminded of Mena Suvari’s character in AMERICAN BEAUTY and her standout line: “there’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary”.
The Wheelers adopt this attitude as their guiding philosophy, raging against the machine at every opportunity– even when the machine is themselves. Mendes makes no bones about the film’s dour attitude– it’s a gorgeous-looking, yet incredibly ugly, portrait of marital strife.
However, returning to the formalist style that he eschewed in 2005’s JARHEAD, Mendes is back in his dramaturgical comfort zone. It’s not his greatest work, but it is certainly consistent within a canon known for its sterling quality.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a James Bond fan. It started with the GOLDENEYE video game for the Nintendo 64, then expanded outward as I started watching all the films in the series. I make a concerted effort to go see a new Bond film in theaters each time one comes out, so you can imagine the great degree of anticipation I had for 2012’s SKYFALL.
That anticipation was obscenely amplified by the fact that Sam Mendes, a director whose work I greatly respected, was at the helm. Looking back over Mendes’ body of work, Mendes’ decision to tackle James Bond is at once both perplexing and strangely logical.
You might be bewildered as to what a director of award-winning character dramas might see in a loud, pulpy action movie. The only connecting factor between Mendes and Bond seems to be a UK nationality. However, even when I read the press announcement detailing his involvement, I knew that Mendes was an inspired choice.
After the dismal failure that was 2002’s DIE ANOTHER DAY, producers decided that the next Bond outing would go back to basics. Back to his roots. And so, in 2006, CASINO ROYALE debuted with a new, blond Bond (Daniel Craig), who was just as emotionally damaged as he was suave.
It was a radical new direction for the world’s favorite super-spy, and it resulted in one of the finest 007 films ever made. However, 2008’s follow-up QUANTUM OF SOLACE, didn’t deliver on the promise of its predecessor. While it was still relentlessly exciting, it was dim-witted, uninspired, and thanks to overly frenetic handheld camerawork, largely incoherent.
As a result, the stakes were high– if SKYFALL didn’t deliver on CASINO ROYALE’s emotional promise, the new era of Bond might be dead before it ever truly lived. Thankfully, Mendes’ masterful hand propels Bond to unseen heights, arguably delivering one of the best Bond films of all time.
When a mission to retrieve a stolen drive listing the identities of M16 agents goes south, Bond is shot and left for dead. Surviving the hit, he holes up in a beachside shack and takes the opportunity to stay dead and begin an early retirement. It takes a bombing of the M16 headquarters to shake him into returning to duty.
A mysterious cyberterrorist has been publicly exposing agents, and Bond is tasked with discovering the terrorist’s identity. It turns out that the mastermind behind the cyber attacks is Raoul Silva, a former M16 agent who has a bone to pick with M. Faced with a renegade agent who can outsmart them at every turn, Bond and M must work together to beat Silva at his own game before they are decimated once and for all.
One of Mendes’ chief inspirations for the tone was Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), and it shows not just in the plotting, but in the characters. As the nefarious, effete Silva, Javier Bardem channels The Joker’s casual anarchic glee. Silva is a Bond villain unlike any other, and as such he’s wildly unpredictable.
In a rogue’s gallery full off eccentric baddies, Silva is by far the most intense and acutely dangerous. Bardem has a knack for playing cool, atypical villains (see his turn as Anton Chigurh in The Coen Bros’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)), and with SKYFALL he’s a malignantly charismatic presence.
Daniel Craig returns as James Bond, fully comfortable within the role and exuding an effortless cool. This is his second film collaboration with Mendes, and their familiarity breeds a daring approach to Bond, who after 50 years of high-octane espionage, is starting to show some severe wear-and-tear.
We delve into Bond’s backstory more so than any other film in the series before it, which gives Craig’s portrayal more pathos and substance. Quite simply, if Craig continues to bring the same level of intensity and commitment to the role in future outings, he may very well topple Sean Connery as the best cinematic incarnation of James Bond.
In addition to a host of new faces, a number of classic Bond characters make their grand re-introduction after the CASINO ROYALE reboot. The biggest of which is Q, played by a fresh-faced Ben Whishaw. In just one scene, Whishaw wipes away any memory of the lovably-craggy Desmond Llewelyn and brings M16 firmly into the twenty first century (ironically, the only gadgets Bond is given for his mission are a custom Walther pistol and a radio tracking device).
Noamie Harris is excellent as Eve, a fellow field operative who can hold her own against Bond in a firefight. Eve and Bond share a chemistry that should be very familiar to fans of the franchise, but to say anything more would set off the perennial spoiler alarm.
Of course, Dame Judi Dench is impeccable in her seventh outing as M, the head of M16. She has become a franchise stalwart, acting somewhat as a surrogate maternal figure for Bond (indeed, the agents actively call her “Mum” as a codename on the field). SKYFALL places the focus on M more squarely than past films, and Dench is more than capable of handling the extra attention. M’s character is given a great new layer as a tough old broad that isn’t afraid to make incredibly hard calls, even when it’s against her own personal interests. Dench adds a very regal presence that dignifies the Bond mythos.
Ralph Fiennes, as Gareth Mallory, symbolizes the British bureaucracy caught up in the throes of modernization. He’s an antagonistic presence to M in that he’s looking to shut the program down and make M retire. However, Fiennes imbues the character with a degree of decency and intelligence that makes him sympathetic.
As a result, he is a mysterious wild card in the proceedings, and his true allegiance remains in the shadows. Rounding out the main cast, Berenice Marlohe makes a stunning impression as Severine, a damaged beauty that leads Bond to Silva– at great personal cost to her.
Collaborating again with Director of Photograpy Roger Deakins, SKYFALL is quite simply the best looking Bond film ever made. Enhancing the picture for IMAX presentation, Mendes and Deakins framed for both an Anamorphic presentation as well as for the un-cropped, full frame the digital format allows.
Indeed, SKYFALL is the first Bond film as well as Mendes’ first film to be shot entirely digitally, and the results are staggering. Mendes cohesively blends his minimalist aesthetic with Bond’s genre trappings. Making full use of the considerable resources at his disposal, Mendes utilizes a variety of dolly, crane, handheld, and Steadicam shots to tell the story.
Every frame is artfully composed, but never so much that it distracts from the action at hand. Editing is much quicker than Mendes’ previous work, but that’s to be expected with the action genre in general. I will say that it seemed a little over-cut at times, but for the most part Mendes strikes a great balance between the quick pace and the characterization.
Contrast is high, colors are deep and saturated, and everything has the raw, tactile feel of a gritty action film. Combine that with some of the most memorable shots in the series’ history and you’ve got one hell of a visual presentation.
Thomas Newman returns to musically collaborate with Mendes, a pairing that kicks previous series composer David Arnold out of the proceedings. Newman stays loyal to the source material, but finds plenty of opportunity to inject his own personality and style.
After two films of skirting around the classic Bond theme, Newman brings it roaring back in full at various points throughout the film. It’s not a typical, Newman/minimalist score by any means– it’s filled to the brim with percussive blasts of horns, strings and drums.
The result is one of the most refreshing, invigorating Bond scores in recent years. And no discussion of SKYFALL’s music would be complete without mentioning Adele’s stunning, throaty title track. Harking back to the days of GOLDFINGER and Shirley Bassey, Adele’s performance is catchy, haunting, and harrowing all at once.
SKYFALL finds Mendes undoubtedly working at the top of his game. He packs so many inspired setpieces into the story that it’s hard to keep track of it all. I love the fact that much of the action takes place on Bond’s home turf, realized very literally in the film’s climactic moments.
The stand-out sequence for me was midway through the film, during M’s deposition to the British MP in which she defends her job amidst accusations that she and her agency are irrelevant and obsolete. This is intercut with Silva, posing as a police officer, relentlessly barreling towards the courthouse to execute her, with Bond dashing through the streets in hot pursuit.
Mendes injects each big sequence with an extra layer that informs us of character and motivation. He also infuses a shockingly realistic presence to the gunplay, in that each bullet has a weight and a consequence. Much like the gunplay in 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION, the gunshots are ear-splittingly loud and jarring.
Judging by the sound design alone, it’s evident that Mendes took great care in every element of the production. With SKYFALL, Mendes proves he’s just as adept at rendering action as he is with drama and character, and he crafts one of the most emotionally charged and satisfying Bond films in many years.
The success of the film vaulted him into the echelon of the biggest and most-respected filmmakers in Hollywood. Not many directors can lay claim to being an Oscar winner and a blockbuster film director, so he’ll have his pick of projects for years to come.
Looking over the course of his development, I see a supremely confident director who uses his background in the theater to bring a great deal of emotional impact to his work. He began at the top, and has barely wavered in the years since his debut. Mendes’ development as a filmmaker is similar to the character development in his best dramas- slow, subtle, and gradual, yet undeniably relentless and powerful.
Up until 2012, the nature of director Sam Mendes’ filmography suggested nothing in the way of his ability to handle a blockbuster action franchise like James Bond. Even his 2005 war drama, JARHEAD, lavished more attention on the psychological underpinnings of his characters rather than the destructive violence of armed conflict.
Indeed, the only thing about Mendes that seemed to position him as a suitable candidate was his British citizenship. His surprise hiring as the director of the 23rd James Bond film, SKYFALL, understandably struck many as an inspired, if not a bit odd, choice– after all, Mendes’ reputation as a masterful director of intimate chamber dramas seemed appropriate given the series’ Daniel Craig-era pivot towards a deeper exploration of Bond’s internal psyche and character, but could he also deliver where it counted: breathtaking action and adventure?
After SKYFALL’s release in November 2012, it quickly became apparent to everyone that the gamble laid down by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson’s EON Productions had paid off in spades; The presence of Mendes’ guiding hand resulted in a deeply-compelling film that would go down as one of the most successful installments in a franchise that had already spanned five decades.
Broccoli and Wilson were understandably keen to replicate this particular alchemy for the inevitable 24th entry, but Mendes wasn’t so eager to jump back in, citing his responsibilities to several stage productions he had on his plate.
The producers continued developing the film in the hopes he would eventually change his mind, hiring SKYFALL’s screenwriter John Logan to draft a new story that would further reveal the secrets of Bond’s murky past while bringing back his Cold War-era nemesis, S.P.E.C.T.R.E– a secretive criminal organization hellbent on world domination.
Absent almost entirely from the series since the Sean Connery years, the rights to this fictional cabal of terrorists had been tied up in litigation for decades by THUNDERBALL (1964) producer Kevin McClory and his estate. However, a 2013 settlement awarded the rights back to their rightful owners, and the franchise could now integrate S.P.E.C.T.R.E back into the rebooted continuity that started with 2006’s CASINO ROYALE.
With this development, Mendes found himself once again drawn to the director’s chair, making him the first Bond filmmaker to helm two consecutive entries since John Glen. In an ironic twist, Logan’s script would be rewritten by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade– the longtime Bond scribes that Logan had replaced on SKYFALL— before undergoing an additional pass by Jez Butterworth.
The story proved difficult to tack down, but Mendes and company nonetheless pushed forward with their massive operation. The script problems compounded into real production woes and an ever-ballooning budget during a grueling six month shoot across such disparate locations as Tangiers, Austria, Mexico City, and Rome.
When all was said and done, the 24th James Bond film– SPECTRE (2015)– wound up with a reported final cost of $350 million, making it not just one of the most expensive Bond films ever made, but one of the most expensive films ever made.
A chief reason for the outsized expense is the film’s sprawling story, which in addition to traveling the far reaches of the globe and staging elaborate set pieces, attempts to retcon the events of the three previous Bond films into a unified conspiracy against our iconic hero.
As Bond attempts to shine a light on the titular shadowy organization (streamlined from the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. acronym that identified the group’s Cold War incarnation), he finds himself personally entangled with its enigmatic leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz)– a ghost from Bond’s past who ultimately reveals himself to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the iconic 007 nemesis from the Connery years.
Bond’s attempts to reveal the truth behind the conspiracy and its personal machinations against him will take him from the alpine peaks of Austria, to the arid desert of Tangiers, and finally to the rain-slicked streets of his London for a final confrontation within the bombed-out husk of M16’s former headquarters.
On top of all this, he finds himself falling in love with a fierce woman named Madeline (Lea Seydoux) who appeals to Bond’s humanity and might just heal the wounds left behind by the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd. SPECTRE has a lot of story to tell, making for the longest-running entry in the series.
However, longer doesn’t necessarily equal better– the filmmakers’ attempts to retroactively incorporate Spectre into the fabric of the previous Bond films feels a little too forced, shoehorning in extraneous story that only causes the truly great moments to space themselves out even further between each other.
However, it is the first of the Craig Bonds to feel like one of the old-fashioned 007 adventures– Bond’s struggle throughout the previous three films to establish himself as the secret agent we all know and love makes the return of beloved Bond institutions (like M’s mahogany office, the gadget-laden Aston Martin, or the classic gun-barrel opening) feel earned.
After three punishing missions, Bond is finally comfortable in his own skin– and so is Daniel Craig, who also receives a co-producing credit here as a testament to his enormous influence on the character as well as the franchise.
Craig’s Bond has always been a bit of a brooding bulldog, or a loyal grump, but he is also a man who is profoundly haunted by loss– the loss of his parents, of Vesper Lynd, of his beloved M (Judi Dench). The events of SKYFALL seemingly cleansed Craig’s Bond of his original sins and emotional baggage while renewing his commitment to MI6.
With SPECTRE, Bond is marked by an unrelenting focus that Mendes has compared to a hunter, but it appears he still has some skeletons in his closet yet. At nearly fifty years old, Craig proves he’s still a physical powerhouse with plenty of fight left in him.
His previous collaboration with Mendes, in SKYFALL as well as a supporting role in 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION, allows for the presence of trust and vulnerability in their working relationship, the effects of which are immediately tangible–even visceral– on the screen.
It remains to be seen if he’ll return for a fifth outing– indeed, press interviews during SPECTRE’s release cited him as wanting to “slit his wrists” instead of playing the character again anytime soon– but even if he doesn’t, Craig will have left behind one of the most enduring and definitive portrayals of the iconic superspy the world has ever seen.
Oscar-winning character actor Christoph Waltz puts a new spin on a hallowed Bond nemesis as Oberhauser / Blofeld, affecting a peculiar physical eccentricity that’s at once both taunting and devious.
In assuming a role previously played by the likes of Donald Pleasence, Waltz has the unenviable task of paying homage to the classical hallmarks of the character– the band-style collar, the Persian lap cat, the disfiguring scar that runs down the side of his face– but he effortlessly incorporates them into his updated version of Bond’s archenemy, making for a formidable and inherently unpredictable adversary who can counter Bond’s brawn with a brilliant brain.
French arthouse star Lea Seydoux is the latest in a long line of Bond Girls, but her performance as Madeline– the confident and elegant daughter of recurring Quantum operative, Mr. White– allows her to immediately differentiate herself from her predecessors.
She’s as fearless as she is brilliant, proving herself every bit Craig’s equal without resorting to the “kickass fighter chick” cliche. A considerable factor of Bond’s emotional trajectory throughout the Craig era has been his love for Vesper Lynd (played brilliantly in CASINO ROYALE by Eva Green) and the wounds incurred by her betrayal and death, but Seydoux’s Madeline is uniquely suited by the end of SPECTRE to become a healing force in Bond’s life, and the one who can help him find love once again.
Bond films are understandably huge in scope, necessitating a large supporting cast of capable character actors. The involvement of a director as widely-respected and esteemed as Mendes has the added benefit of attracting prestigious actors to even the smallest of roles.
SKYFALL evidenced Mendes’ desire to extend the roles of perennial favorites like M, Q, and Moneypenny beyond an expositional capacity by making them active participants in the story. Towards that end, he cast Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris, and proved there were entirely new ways to depict a suite of iconic characters who had been around for fifty years.
Fiennes has a tough act to follow as the new M, and Judi Dench’s successor, but his classical training helps him pull it off beautifully. He’s at once both a throwback to the gravely serious and dignified M16 bosses of old, and an entirely new animal who can hold his own in a firefight.
SPECTRE finds Fiennes further finessing the role, now comfortably installed as the head of M16. The fresh-faced Whishaw quickly proved he could fill the shoes of the inimitable Desmond Llewelyn as M16’s Quartermaster (or Q, for short), and SPECTRE also provides him with a fair degree of autonomy and mobility, thanks to the advancement of digital and wireless technology.
Harris made series history with her SKYFALL debut as the first Moneypenny of color, and she continues to further distinguish herself here from her predecessors– the matronly Lois Maxwell and the poised Samantha Bond– by imbuing an assertive, independent, and challenging charge into her otherwise-flirtatious repartee with Bond.
Also returning is Jesper Christensen as Mr. White, the enigmatic agent for Quantum– a similarly conspiratorial cabal of elite power players initially intended to be the Craig-era answer to S.P.E.C.T.R.E, only to be retconned as a subdivision within SPECTRE’s eponymous organization once EON Productions won the film rights back.
Christensen’s third appearance within the rebooted continuity finds his character a broken, reclusive shadow of his former self– hiding out from the world even as he awaits the inevitable retribution of his former employers.
Of the new faces, Monica Belluci, Andrew Scott, and Dave Bautista are the standouts. Holding a distinction as the oldest Bond girl to date, Belluci smolders as an aloof Roman widow of a Spectre assassin that naturally falls into bed with the very man who killed her husband.
As a smug bureaucrat / double agent for Spectre, Scott’s character (patronizingly referred to by Craig as “C”) makes for a formidable adversary to Fienne’s M by being his antithesis. Where the middle-aged M prizes old-fashioned field work to gather intelligence, the much younger C prefers to utilize all-seeing and borderline-unethical surveillance technology as both a cost-cutting and a life-saving measure.
Bautista plays Blofeld’s bodyguard, Hinx– a silent brute in the grand tradition of Jaws or Oddjob, but with a fraction of the memorability. As Mendes’ first big-budget action picture, SKYFALL put forth a particular tone and aesthetic that was clearly inspired by the work of a fellow Brit– Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).
SPECTRE similarly takes its cues from Nolan, hiring INTERSTELLAR’s cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema to replace SKYFALL’s Roger Deakins (who also shot JARHEAD and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD for Mendes).
SKYFALL marked the first time that a Bond film was shot digitally, but SPECTRE finds Mendes and Hoytema returning to the organic texture of 35mm film, with a distinctively shallow depth of field gained from using anamorphic lenses– the first time Mendes had done so in his career.
The film is stuffed with Mendes’ impeccable compositions, with each locale given a subtle, yet distinct look: Mexico boasts dusty amber tones; London’s slick streets are rendered in a cool, stony palette; Italy’s vibrant colors are muted and cloaked in sepia and shadow; the starkness of Austria’s frigid landscape closely resemble the monochromatic nature of black-and-white films; and the ancient warmth of Tangiers is slightly overbaked and arid.
SPECTRE also continues the classical, epic approach to camerawork that Mendes employed in SKYFALL, utilizing cranes, dollies, and handheld cameras to exhilarating effect. From a dizzying car chase through the nocturnal Roman cityscape to the destruction of Blofeld’s secret hideout in a huge crater via one of the largest practical explosions ever caught on film, Mendes’ ambition to create an exciting action film on par with Nolan’s caliber is evident throughout.
He signals his intentions from the first shot– a virtuoso opening that tracks Bond in a single shot as he weaves through a Mexican Day of the Dead parade, walks up into a hotel, ditches his date by exiting through a window, and then stalks the rooftops high above the street as he makes his way to surveill a clandestine meeting next door.
Despite its surface simplicity, the shot is an exceedingly complex one from a technical perspective, and Mendes and company pull it off with effortless grace, immersing the audience within the sprawling scene far better than trendier techniques like 3-D ever could.
For other aspects of SPECTRE’s visuals, Mendes draws inspiration from other directors– the Coen Brother’s regular production designer Dennis Gassner replicates his duties from SKYFALL, and the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) is heavily felt throughout the centerpiece “secret society meeting” sequence, from the shadowy, baroque environs right down to the elevated levels of interaction between trespasser and attendee.
(Mendes switches Kubrick’s orientation however, placing Blofeld down on the floor while Bond watches from a balcony high above.). Mendes’ longtime composer Thomas Newman reprises several of the key themes and ideas he developed with SKYFALL’s original score, injecting modern electronic elements into an old-school orchestral approach.
Newman came aboard the series as part of the Mendes package, unceremoniously dumping the previous composer David Arnold after five functional– if undistinctive– scores. Newman once again proves an inspired choice for Bond, supplying the series with a suite of memorable supplementary themes that inject a substantial degree of gravitas and intrigue.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a new Bond film without its own lavish theme song, which SPECTRE provides in the form of Sam Smith’s darkly beautiful “The Writing’s On The Wall”. An alternate version was commissioned and performed by Radiohead, but was famously rejected for being too dark.
Perhaps unfairly criticized upon its release (“it doesn’t even have the title of the movie in its name, man!”), Smith’s ballad would go on to win the Oscar for Best Song, the series’ second consecutive win in this category after Adele took home gold for her efforts on SKYFALL.
If SPECTRE does indeed mark Craig’s last outing as 007, the track stands to serve as a melancholic counterpoint to the aggressive machismo of Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” featured in CASINO ROYALE— an intriguing bookend that echoes the emotional trajectory of Craig’s Bond himself.
Throughout the course of six features, Mendes has proven himself more of a cerebral auteur than an aesthete. Unlike the great deal of directors who tend to impose their thematic fascinations on the story at hand, he seems to harvest the themes already lying within the narrative he’s chosen.
His aesthetic is marked not by recurring stylistic conceits, but rather a kind of classical dramaturgy that no doubt stems from his background as a stage director. Previous films like AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD benefitted greatly from this approach, but it also elevates the genre material seen in both SKYFALL and SPECTRE.
He crafts both films’ action sequences with a visceral brilliance, but his artistic instincts make for dialogue and character moments that are just as, if not more, memorable. It’s not a coincidence that Mendes’ involvement with the Bond series has overlapped with an increased presence at the Academy Awards beyond the usual below-the-line craft categories.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, SPECTRE was a monster hit when it was released in November of 2015. Grossing nearly a billion dollars domestically, the film’s performance is second only to SKYFALL.
For all his ambition and effort, however, Mendes couldn’t escape the law of diminishing returns– reviews were decidedly mixed, with many lavishing praise on Mendes’ classy style and approach to action while taking the script to task for its extra bloat and a tendency to fall back on uninspired formula.
There’s a case to be made that, considering the majestic excellence of SKYFALL, Mendes is simply the victim of unrealistic expectations. SPECTRE is far from a bad film, but it cannot extricate itself from the shadow of its superior predecessor.
It pales in comparison, and yet it can’t distance itself to avoid comparison. Mendes’ direction is as on-point as its ever been, but its effectiveness is hobbled by an unwieldy screenplay stretched thinly over a misshapen conspiracy plot.
As of this writing, the 51 year-old director is attached to direct film adaptations of VOYEUR’S MOTEL and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll return for a third Bond outing (indeed, that probably depends on whether Craig himself will return).
Considering his initial reluctance to reprise his role for the second time, it’s probably a fair bet that Mendes’ involvement with the Bond series is done. Even despite SPECTRE’s disappointing reception, Mendes has fulfilled the promise put forth with Craig’s casting in CASINO ROYALE by elevating well-trod material and redefining a 20th century icon for a new generation.
In the process, he’s undergone immense personal growth as a filmmaker and broadened his audience considerably– thus installing himself as one of the premiere directors of impeccably-made and narratively-nuanced prestige blockbusters.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———