The Films of Sam Mendes
Road to Perdition (July 9/02)
Set during the Great Depression, Road to Perdition follows hitman Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) as he and his son are forced to go on the lam after running afoul of a respected gangster's (Paul Newman's John) hot-headed son (Daniel Craig's Connor) - with the efforts of a tenacious assassin (Jude Law's Harlen) consistently keeping the pair on their toes. Road to Perdition's been directed by Sam Mendes, whose American Beauty was an astonishingly capable and mature debut. Along with cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, Mendes has crafted a film that's just as exciting to look at as it is to watch. He employs several instances of virtuoso camerawork, such as the introduction to Jude Law's character, but never allows the visuals to overwhelm the story. Right from the opening shots of Sullivan's home and Michael Jr.'s daily routine of riding his bike home from school, it's clear that Mendes has succeeding in creating a very specific time and place. Tom Hanks probably didn't immediately spring to mind when Mendes was casting the central character of this dark tale, but he gives what is likely the best performance of his career. Sporting a mustache and clad entirely in dark clothing, Hanks takes a character that could have easily been despised by the audience and manages to evoke sympathy instead. Newman, playing someone we're never quite sure we should like, is simply brilliant as John Rooney - a man who tries to do the right thing but is undermined by his inept son. For the first time in ages, the actor has been given top-notch material to work with and he proves that he's easily still one of the best performers out there. Mendes has peppered the film with a really interesting (and talented) supporting cast, with newcomer Tyler Hoechlin a standout as Michael Jr. Much like Haley Joel Osment, Hoechlin never seems as though he's trying to act; he gives off a very natural vibe and follows Hanks' lead in delivering a restrained performance. Jude Law, as the photographer/hitman on the Sullivans' trail, once again demonstrates that he's one of the best in a new breed of actors. His Maguire is a sleazy yet entirely professional killer, and Law's completely convincing in the role. Finally, there's an actor named Daniel Craig as Connor, John Rooney's impetuous son. Though an unknown, Craig's unique face and obvious talent ensure that he's destined to become more well known. Alongside the superb direction and acting is an equally impressive screenplay by David Self. Based on an acclaimed Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, Self's screenplay is full of interesting characters, unexpected plot twists and spare yet effective dialogue. More surprising are the instances of humor, which provide temporary relief from the somber storyline. Intelligent and challenging, Road to Perdition is ultimately an enthralling endeavor that's certainly a refreshing change of pace from the mindless summer blockbusters currently dominating theaters.
Jarhead (November 3/05)
Jarhead marks director Sam Mendes' followup to Road to Perdition, the 2002 gangster drama that remains one of the best examples of the genre. Prior to that, the filmmaker tackled suburbia in American Beauty - which, of course, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Now, with Jarhead, Mendes offers up his take on the wartime drama and emerges with a film that - while not quite as mesmerizing as his previous efforts - is an effective, haunting new spin on a well-worn genre. The film follows third-generation military recruit Anthony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) through the rigors of basic training and his eventual deployment into the Middle East as part of Operation Desert Shield. There, Swoff and fellow enlistee Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are assigned to sniper detail under the gruff Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx). Following their training, though, the men find themselves at loose ends due to the war's perpetually delayed start date.
The majority of Jarhead follows the various recruits as they bide their time waiting for something to happen, usually by either engaging in some sort of homoerotic bonding activity or following a ruthless training schedule. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr effectively captures the restlessness and boredom of non-active military life, emphasizing the day-to-day routine of these men. Likewise, Mendes doesn't shy away from the episodic nature of Broyles Jr's script - something that quickly proves to be both a positive and a negative. In terms of the former, Jarhead is clearly unlike any war movie ever made; since the men never actually participate in any battles (there are a couple of near misses but that's about the extent of it), the film is surely going to disappoint viewers looking for another Platoon or Black Hawk Down. Stripped down to its bare essentials, the movie is basically a coming-of-age story revolving around Swoff's transformation from boy to man (the character's naïveté at the film's outset is counterbalanced by the grizzled figure he becomes towards the end). Of course, it'd be almost impossible to buy such a dramatic change were it not for Gyllenhaal's absolutely astounding performance. Though he's always been a reliable actor, Gyllenhaal cements his status as one of the most talented young performers around. That he's able to hold his own opposite powerhouses such as Sarsgaard and Foxx certainly speaks to his talent, and clearly marks his arrival as a bona fide movie star. And although Sarsgaard effectively steals every single one of his scenes, Gyllenhaal manages to retain the viewer's focus throughout. Despite Jarhead's many positive attributes, though, the film never quite becomes becomes the electrifying piece of work one might've hoped. The viewer never quite makes an emotional connection with any of these characters, a problem that - when compounded with the plotless nature of the storyline - results in an distinct feeling of unevenness. While the movie is certainly never boring, there's no denying that some sequences are far more intriguing than others. But through it all, Mendes' unique and thoroughly captivating sense of style ensures that the movie remains compelling from start to finish. And though Jarhead isn't really about anything (in the traditional sense, at least), one imagines that's precisely the point.
There's little doubt that Revolutionary Road primarily (and ultimately) comes off as a fairly standard domestic drama, albeit one that's consistently elevated by the superb performances and Sam Mendes' expectedly enthralling directorial choices. Screenwriter Justin Haythe - working from Richard Yates' celebrated novel - does a nice job of capturing the suburban angst of the two central characters, and there's little doubt that the movie ultimately manages to transcend its circa-1950s setting to become a thoroughly relevant piece of work. The spare storyline follows married couple Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) as they inevitably come to regret their decision to settle down and have kids, with Frank's frustration at work matched by April's boredom at home. As becomes clear almost immediately, Revolutionary Road benefits substantially from Mendes' inherently cinematic modus operandi - with the film's breathtaking visuals proving effective at instantly capturing the viewer's interest. The degree to which both DiCaprio and Winslet are able to bring their sharply-drawn characters to life certainly plays a significant role in the movie's undeniable success, as the actors - though forced to bicker with one another for the bulk of the running time - ably transform Frank and April into complex, endlessly captivating figures whose myriad of relatable attributes effectively engender the viewer's sympathy. The periodic inclusion of electrifying interludes - ie anything featuring Michael Shannon's unhinged John Givings - ensure that Revolutionary Road remains a cut above such similarly-themed fare as Little Children and The Ice Storm, with the emotional punch of the third act (coupled with a final scene that's just about perfect) cementing the film's place as yet another stellar endeavor from Mendes.
Away We Go (June 9/09)
Sam Mendes' most light-hearted film to date, Away We Go follows young married couple Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) as they embark on a cross-country journey hoping to find an ideal place to raise their unborn child - with their trip eventually bringing them face-to-face with a whole host of oppressively quirky figures (including Maggie Gyllenhaal's LN and Allison Janney's Lily). There's little doubt that the idea behind Away We Go is ultimately more appealing than the final product, as screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida blanket the proceedings with a number of aggressively idiosyncratic elements that often threaten to negate the film's positive attributes (ie Krasinski and Rudolph's undeniably marvelous work). It's consequently not surprising to note that the movie is generally only engaging in fits and starts, with the particularly ineffective opening hour rarely living up to the promise of the down-to-earth premise (ie Burt and Verona's encounter with Gyllenhaal's broadly-portrayed hippie character is funny, certainly, but the scene, which plays like a rejected Saturday Night Live sketch, feels as though it'd be more at home within an entirely different film). The egregiously off-the-wall atmosphere persists a great deal longer than one might've hoped, admittedly, yet there does reach a point at which Eggers and Vida slowly but surely begin to emphasize moments of genuineness - with a third-act sequence detailing Burt and Verona's various promises to one another standing as an obvious highlight. It goes without saying that had the remainder of the proceedings been infused with similarly affecting interludes, Away We Go would've undoubtedly come off as one of those movies that essentially speaks to an entire generation (ie sort of a Garden State for the thirty-something crowd) - with the ultimate realization of this fact transforming the film into a far more pronounced disappointment than one might've initially suspected.