Sam Mendes has never met a male protagonist he couldn’t unravel, James Bond included. The Oscar-winning director has only made five films in the 15 years since his debut “American Beauty” (seven if you count November’s wildly anticipated “Spectre”), and while his genre selection ranges from period melodrama to 007 action picture, his dissection of masculinity has remained a thematic constant. We often meet a Mendes male lead at a time of transitory flux, his masculine ego being forced to sink or swim. Whether centered on an expecting father, a frustrated Marine or a fledging husband, Mendes’ films speak directly to the male in crisis. Never will the lead be the same from start to finish, and its these tormented arcs that make Mendes’ filmography so emotionally ripe. With “American Beauty” now available On Demand, we’ve ranked Mendes’ six features from worst to best:
6. “Away We Go” (2009)
Calling this pregnancy road trip dramedy Mendes’ “weakest” film is unjust. “Away We Go” feels like an outlier and a genre break for Mendes thanks to its sweetness and melancholy, its quirky characters and its expertly timed acoustic tunes courtesy of Alexi Murdoch, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and more. Interestingly, the movie finds Mendes dissecting the world around his characters more than the characters themselves. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are funny and vulnerable as a thirty-something couple touring the country to find a healthy place to raise their child. Each new destination brings a wave of wacky characters (most memorably a radical mom played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the film affectionately juxtaposes the couple’s self-righteous optimism with the flawed, frail world around them. “Away We Go” finds the charm in melancholy just like “Little Miss Sunshine” before it, and for this very reason it can’t quite hold a match to Mendes’ more dramatically rich features.
5. “Jarhead” (2005)
“Jarhead” received a tepid response during its theatrical release, but it’s a film that continues to develop and grow richer with each subsequent viewing. In the vein of Altman’s M*A*S*H,” the war film uses a previous conflict (1990’s Gulf War) to respond to a current one, with Mendes swapping comedic satire for disorienting drama. As the eager soldiers find themselves plagued by aimlessness and boredom, they dissolve into primal children, stuck in a Persian Gulf vacuum as their lives back home continue on. All one has to do is observe the maniacal growth in Gyllenhaal’s stellar performance to see how destructive war can be. “Jarhead” also finds Mendes and frequent collaborator Roger Deakins in perfect unison, shooting the film like a bombed out wasteland by day and, at times, a hellish underworld by night. As Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” continues to provoke discussions on how we portray modern warfare on screen, there couldn’t be a better time to revisit “Jarhead” and see how Mendes interprets the genre for the War on Terror.
4. “Road to Perdition” (2002)
Mendes surprised by following up the dialogue-heavy “American Beauty” with the near silent “Road to Perdition.” Based on Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel of the same name, “Perdition” might just be Mendes’ most gorgeous picture. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Conrad Hall evokes the shadows and spatial depths of Edward Hopper and Gordon Willis. The characters are constantly shrouded in darkness or refracted through windows and water, resulting in a film mostly told through bold visual metaphors that foreshadow their unavoidable fates. Stars Tom Hanks, Jude Law and Paul Newman are at the top of their games here, and while Mendes’ attention to character may be a little detached, he strikes a chord by visually representing the thematic constructions. From violence to the relationship between fathers and sons, “Perdition” expertly shows how grim and intertwined each characters’ actions are. It’s as thesis driven as mob movies get.
3. “Skyfall” (2012)
Although Mendes was probably not the first name many would associate with the James Bond franchise, in retrospect he was the perfect director to fully realize the character as a post-9/11 action hero. “Skyfall” has the most vulnerable Bond we’ve ever seen. The film has immaculately shot action scenes like the opening Istanbul chase, but no shootout comes close to the internal drama of watching Bond find his purpose in a 21st century age of technology and chaos. Bond’s debonair charms don’t cut it in Mendes’ world, and he puts 007 through the emotional ringer by forcing him to confront his past (quite literally in the form of Javier Bardem’s gleeful villain) and create a future where sacrifice is inescapable. Mendes and screenwriter John Logan expand on the themes first started in the brilliant “Casino Royale” (2006) by continuing to dig into Bond’s soul, something “Quantum of Solace” (2008) dropped the ball on. When Mendes manages to combine his love for thematic overtones with the franchise’s duty to action set pieces, such as the dazzling Shanghai sniper sequence, he takes 007 to the very peak of cinematic perfection. No wonder November’s “Spectre” is one of 2015’s most anticipated titles.
2. “American Beauty” (1999)
It’s the debut, five-time Oscar winner that put Mendes on the map. Looking back, it’s miraculous how confident a first time filmmaker like Mendes handles the high wire act of Alan Ball’s screenplay. The film is at once a biting satirical takedown of the suburban American Dream and a sad character piece about a husband in plight, and the way Mendes uses these two styles to enhance one another really stands out. Look no further than its memorable opening. Set to Thomas Newman’s percussive score, the scene expresses Lester’s mournful freedom while giving suburban America the middle finger with images of red-blooded roses against white picket fences. Mendes, working for the first time with DP Conrad Hall, doesn’t call much attention to his direction either. Using resourceful simple shots, he enlivens the material and lets the characters’ feelings erupt. He also personally cast Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, who add a twisted truth to marital resentment and disgust that is darkly, sickly funny.
1. “Revolutionary Road” (2008)
Mendes triumphs in suburbia. Some may disagree with “Revolutionary Road’s” placement here, but it’s Mendes’ most thematically provocative and emotionally crushing film, made all the more personal since he divorced wife and star Kate Winslet only two years later. An adaptation of Robert Yates’ 1961 novel, “Road” finds Mendes coming to a mournful realization: our gender roles may have changed significantly since the 1950s, but our kick for the American Dream and the way we vigorously tear each other down in the process has remained constant. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have never been more raw or exposed than they are here. Winslet won Best Actress for “The Reader” the same year, but her despairing turn as April Wheeler is really her career apex.
“Revolutionary Road” finds Mendes wrestling with the female 1950s melodrama through the prism of his masculine inclinations. Nearly all of the films above deal with the male psyche in conflict with surrounding forces, but here Mendes pulls off a bold bait-and-switch by exploring how masculine turmoil silences the female identity. His controlled direction drives this point home. After one severe fight, for instance, Mendes plunges you into April’s disillusionment by smash cutting to a dreamlike tracking shot in the woods. It’s this calamitous gender duality that makes the film a raw period drama and a relevant dissection of the American Dream. For that reason, “Revolutionary Road” shows Mendes at a powerful, explorative peak.