As his WWI war epic 1917 comes out in time for the holidays, we spend December looking back on the eclectic modes of Sam Mendes.
At first blush, it’s hard to pin down the filmmaking style of Sam Mendes into a neat, little category like you can many mainstream filmmakers. He’s got the formal command and boldness of an auteur, but the flexibility of genre and scale one associates with a journeyman. His films are big and small, intimate and sprawling, stuffed with action or dazzling in their wistfulness. It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, that the director of American Beauty might end up directing two James Bond pictures, and yet here we are. His latest, the WWI one-take wonder 1917, feels like yet another experiment for him, a dirty tale of war and fellowship with a formal conceit that cements the claustrophobia of conflict.
His works are often meditative and always gorgeous — he’s cultivated decades-long relationships with wonderful craftsmen like cinematographers Roger Deakins and Conrad Hall, and composers like Thomas Newman. Alongside David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, Mendes helped to ring in a new era of crisp, detail-oriented formalism to the prestige films of the ’90s and beyond; his contributions are often dismissed in comparison to the more loudspoken aesthetics of his counterparts.
And yet, the more you dive into his films, you see characters in transition, especially male characters. The shaky, unstable nature of masculinity seems a particular focus for Mendes — the mid-life crisis of Lester Burnham in American Beauty, the wartime burnout of Jarhead, the weariness of a globe-trotting spy past his prime in his two Bond films. Whether he’s making a weepy, post-Juno indie (Away We Go) or an intimate, Sirkian dive into the toxicity of a disillusioned couple in the ’50s (Revolutionary Road), Mendes’ work zeroes in on that particular concern, of men in various stages of crisis.
Long before American Beauty, Mendes was largely known as a director of London theatre, coming to prominence with a startling 1993 revival of Cabaret directed by himself and Chicago director Rob Marshall. (You know, the one with Alam Cumming as the Emcee.) It was bold, sexy, and abject, leaning hard into the seediness and hypersexuality of the Kit Kat Klub, radically reinventing the musical for a new audience. Previously-alluded-to bisexual characters (like Cliff) were made explicitly bi, and Cumming’s Emcee is preening and only partially clothed. It was confrontational and dark, and immediately put him on the map.
He puts a more sensitive eye to his film work, though; Mendes’ direction is often gentle, even melancholy; you can see that even in stuff like Skyfall (and to a lesser extent Spectre), where scenes slow down to delve into the psychology of 007’s closed-off approach to life, and the various ways his past haunts him. Characters are displaced, and ill-suited to their environments, which causes tension: Lester Burnham is burnt out at the drudgery of his suburban life, Jarhead‘s Tony Swofford grows anxious and isolated in the Iraqi desert, the couples in Revolutionary Road and Away We Go struggle to find equilibrium and peace, the former in picket-fence domesticity and the latter in a quirky, itinerant life.
While Mendes may not be the most appropriate target for focus around the Christmas holiday (though we’ll damn sure try to tie his works to the birth of Jesus Christ if we see an opening), the specter of his upcoming war epic 1917 opens up some fascinating possibilities to explore the subdued aesthetics and formalism of Mendes and his works. Hell, we might even jump back to cover his ’98 filmed performance of Cabaret to see how it reflects his current status as a filmmaker with a lot of life left in him — one of the rare filmmakers to maintain their arthouse, prestige sensibility in an age where the blockbuster reigns supreme.
Keep an eye on this space, as we’ll update it with essays and articles examining the works of Sam Mendes throughout the month. Merry Christmas to you — here’s a plastic bag floating in the wind!