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What Makes a Sam Mendes Film?

Film scholar Landon Palmer examines five early entries into the filmography of Sam Mendes.
Sam Mendes Films: Article Header (Shutterstock)
By  · Published on June 22nd, 2009

Culture Warrior is a column that ran on our site from 2009 to 2012 and was written by an actual film school graduate: film scholar and teacher Landon Palmer. This entry explores the films of Sam Mendes up through 2009’s Away We Go.

Most works by great directors can be summed up by their obsessions – those repeated themes continuously articulated and further explored in each of their films, no matter how dissimilar such films may be upon first glance. For example, one of Hitchcock’s many obsessions included the role of the ordinary man in extraordinary situations beyond his understanding. Spielberg frequently employs a preoccupation with problematic relationships between fathers and their children. Kubrick repeatedly chronicled the processes of man’s loss of control as a result of the circumstances of his environment. Anyway, you get the idea.

In tandem with these repeated thematic obsessions are aesthetic characteristics particular to a given director’s visual approach. Hitchcock often used visual symbols, like stairs or birds, as motifs to emphasize his obsessive themes. Likewise, Spielberg’s constantly moving camera frequently used a large depth of field, separating foreground from background, to highlight strained relationships between characters or between a protagonist and their environment. And Kubrick often framed his protagonist’s face in the center of the screen, sometimes staring directly into the camera, highlighting the oppressive force of the landscape surrounding him.

With Sam Mendes, we have a relatively new filmmaker who has proven himself as a force to be reckoned with – a filmmaker who has shown such significant promise in his relatively small output of films that his career already suggests he will likely be later canonized amongst the great filmmakers listed above. While perhaps his greatest success to date remains his first film, that landmark of 90s cinema American Beauty (as all his films since have, to differing degrees, possessed a significant share of equally vocal detractors and supporters), it seems that nobody denies that his initial promise remains intact.

And while each of Mendes’s films have recognizable aesthetic traits (usually connected by his frequent collaboration with cinematographers Conrad L. Hall and Roger Deakins, and composer Thomas Newman), his thematic traits, or authorial obsessions, are a bit harder to pin down. Where Hitchcock frequently worked in the genre of the suspense thriller, and Spielberg is known for sci-fi, adventure, and historical dramas, Mendes has made five very different films occupying five separate generic categories: the tragidramedy, the gangster film, the war film, the domestic melodrama, and, most recently, the quirky indie comedy. It seems that Mendes has, up to this point, established a distinct visual personality, but with films so incredibly different from one another that he can’t be characterized by the thematic repetition typically afforded to the auteur.

Yet while pondering this conundrum during a screening of Mendes’s latest, Away We Go, the once-elusive characteristics connecting his films together became apparent, and can best be simplified in one repeated theme/obsession: his continued exploration of the changing concept of home.

American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty examines the instability of the home when threatened by the select few who refuse to keep up appearances and endorse the façade of the white picket fence. The film’s indictment of suburbia isn’t one-dimensional: it recognizes how the pressure to appear happy and normal rather than actually be happy can be soul-suckingly dreadful, but also illustrates how this practice is necessary for the stability of people to live in peaceful coexistence in such close (albeit segregated) quarters. American Beauty argues that the most deteriorating definition of “home” is that which is normal and stable because nobody is normal, thus the home is then rendered a dishonest place where true emotions and opinions are never addressed. Yet the nuclear family’s embrace of liberation from this façade is as quintessentially “American” as the picket fences and minivans that confine them – from the husband’s prolonged affinity for his own personal Lolita to the wife’s maniacal embrace of gun culture to the teens’ desire to run away, the characters operate throughout with a heightened degree of self-interest, attempting a reconnection with a self once lost but forgetting how to successfully operate as a community in the process. The film suggests that as long as we watch our neighbors with voyeuristic suspicion rather than earnest acceptance removed from the pressures of conformity, there can never be a stable concept of home that permits enduring happiness.

Road to Perdition (2002)

As half of the father-and-son protagonists’ immediate family is killed off in the first act, any stable idea of home is removed from the outset of Mendes’s second film. Like American Beauty, family and home are not regarded here as equivalents (this aspect foregrounded by the fact that Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is not blood-related to crime patriarch John Rooney (Paul Newman), but is treated as more legitimately closer to family than Rooney’s own son). Road to Perdition spends its narrative searching and paving the way for home to exist, which is not to imply a peaceful and prolonged cohabitation between father and son, but rather a safe haven to enable the son with a life of peace never afforded to the father. The film articulates home in biblical terms as a life that permits the ability to one day achieve heaven – something the son arguably achieves in his lifetime because of the (Christ-like?) sacrificial death of the father. Home here is painfully destroyed and then carefully rebuilt.

Jarhead (2005)

A highly underrated film, Jarhead explores the effects of displacement – when one is forced away from the comforts of home to occupy a territory foreign in every respect. Morale declines not because these young soldiers endure the blistering deserts of Iraq rather than the coziness of their living room, but because they do so without purpose or motivation – thus, the admirable impetus for abandoning the home in the first place reveals itself to be an outdated, idealistic goal of personal and national achievement. The insecurity resulting from the loss of home is articulated through the all-too-real paranoia of infidelity happening in the bedrooms of their spouses and significant others while the soldiers continually “fight” into infinity towards a distressingly vague and unattainable goal. When Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) finally returns to a now unrecognizable and abandoned home, he only dreams of being back halfway around the world in the surprisingly stable uncertainty of war.

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Viewed by many critics as a revisiting of similar themes explored in American Beauty, Revolutionary Road chronicles further the discrepancy between the idea of what home should be and the limiting paths to happiness which result from the oppressive employment of this ideal. The film also reveals that home as defined in suburban 1950s culture is a particularly male-dominated concept, stultifying the woman’s ability to achieve and pursue. This narrow idea of home is such a weighted concept in this culture that when the lead couple flirts with the possibility of moving to Paris, it is seen by their ever-present community as a threatening abandonment of all that is deemed valuable in suburban society. Revolutionary Road is easily Mendes’s most pessimistic visitation of this theme yet, as home in its truest sense is viewed here as something that probably doesn’t exist at all, and is only sought in the form of oppressive conformity or a naïve, foreign ideal.

Away We Go (2009)

Probably the most literalized and obvious exploration of this theme, Mendes’s rather modest and relatively unassuming addition to the quirky indie dramedy trend finds a couple in search of a home for their unborn child. A refreshingly optimistic (and, I thought, more honest) counterpoint to the tortuous and redundant Revolutionary Road, Away We Go states that home can exist fluidly between two people, no matter where and with whom they find themselves on the map. It becomes clear pretty early in the film that no matter which quirky (and sometimes cardboard) supporting characters the baby grows up with or what the name of the town s/he is born in, home will persist. Mendes’s first movie not involving a Hall, Deakins, or a Newman, Away We Go seems at first like a quaint afterthought compared to his bigger and more highly anticipated films (stratified by the consistent three-year gap between them), but ultimately reveals itself instead to be a thorough meditation on Mendes’s most enduring theme, and a positive, but never naïve, approach to it. I hope this less cynical (though that is not to say, less complex) exploration of home will continue to be revisited in Mendes’s later work.

To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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