Away We Go (Mendes, 2009)

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Sam Mendes’ Away We Go attempts to capture the many moments of uncertainty leading up to parenthood by fluctuating quirky comedy and serious drama. These tonal shifts thankfully never stray into the extreme, instead relying on the subtlety of framing to reveal the small moments of character. And the film is brave enough to completely focus on the intimate journey of two people justifying their love outside the realm of type-cast family units.

But the underlining tension protagonists Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) feel with the responsibility of having a child becomes too simplistic, especially when juxtaposed with the four situational couples they visit throughout the film. These vary from nightmarish (Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal) to the damaged (Chris Messina), and none make the impact they should. Moments of pain can be found within each scene, but Mendes often undermines this progress with conventional action and dialogue.

Unlike Mendes’ genre efforts, Away We Go lacks a visual authority, floating by seamlessly into the ether of everyday life. Yet despite this casual structure, Mendes hammers his point home so bombastically with ironic music cues and character motifs that by the end Burt and Verona are stripped of their charm and vulnerability. Instead of standing alone strong and independent, they just seem lost, staring into the open hoping for more guidance.

Revolutionary Road (Mendes, 2008)

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In each of his four feature films, director Sam Mendes finds tragedy in families on the edge of collapse, be it within the United States Military in Jarhead, or the nuclear ones in American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and now Revolutionary Road. More interestingly though, Mendes is one of the few Western directors to truly genre hop, from Melodrama, to Gangster, to War film, autuerist motifs/themes/ mise-en-scene in tow. While Revolutionary Road might initially be perceived as a marital war of words, it contains multiple elements of Horror which stand out as the film progresses. As the young couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) living in 1950’s suburbia struggle to find relevance in the suffocating confines of conformity, Mendes manipulates their seemingly sunny locale with cavernous close-ups and harsh strands of light. This breaking marriage weaves excuses, lies, and tenderness together to form a timeline of inadequacy, Roger Deakins’ hypnotically menacing camera constantly hovering throughout. Only Michael Shannon’s mental patient PhD sees this couple for who they are, and has the brass to say so in two dynamic scenes of comeuppance. The anger, anguish, and betrayal culminate into one striking image toward the end of the film, where the small dripping vibrancy of red overwhelms the monochromatic space, finally juxtaposing the destructive qualities of limitation and weakness with the fear at the heart of such emotions. This suburban nightmare has many monsters lurking underneath the surface, waiting for a time to passively reveal their crippling perceptions about family, tradition, and image. The silence is almost too much to stand.

Jarhead (Mendes, 2005)

“We never have to come back to this shit hole ever again!”

When Private Fergus (Brian Geraghty) shouts these jovial words during the end desert sequence in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, the viewer knows he’s wrong (the U.S. having already been entrenched in Iraq for two years upon the film’s release). This moment exemplifies the procedural contradictions strung together both seamlessly and aimlessly throughout the film, but also the purposeful lack of foresight bread within the modern American military complex. Instead of the clear cut righteousness seen in films like We Were Soldiers and Saving Private Ryan, Jarhead gives us a blatant mixture of boredom and machismo, something toxic that has consumed both Fergus, our main character Anthony Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal), his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgard), and every other grunt we’ve seen. More generally, Jarhead seems to be obsessed with two attributes, namely the desire to finish (as in destroying an unseen enemy, masturbating, killing) and the heartache of a disappointed aftermath (as in coming to grips with the experience of being a Marine and in turn leaving the Corp). This is the third time I’ve seen Jarhead, and it’s a testament to Mendes’ brilliant blocking and Roger Deakins perfect camera work that this complicated and strange film gets better with each viewing. Like Scorsese’s The Departed, Jarhead wanders around plot points and right through typical Hollywood character arcs, which ultimately makes for an exhilarating and frustrating experience. The experience of the viewer rightly fits well with the personal and uncomfortable material, written by Swafford as a memoir and adapted for the screen by William Broyles Jr. When Swafford and his buddies were sent to Iraq in early 1991, they understood a war-zone awaited them. But their role, and the role of the Marine’s in general, could not have been anticipated by their gung-ho demographic. As Swafford muses about the activities Marine’s should use to combat boredom, we get a sense of loss, a sense of death in his words. He and his brethren were trained to fight, but yield little insight from their commanders (represented by Jamie Foxx’ Staff Sergeant) to why they aren’t able to keep up with the fast paced war ahead of them. These men essentially see each other as individuals (brilliantly displayed in the taped interview segments), which is in conflict with the group mentality of the American military. Interestingly, the men of Jarhead learn that the process is more lasting than the final result, and end up becoming a surrogate family by the end, even though their connection is completely broken and painful. Mendes’ last fade of a suburban landscape into the endless desert is the scariest segment in the film. For the first time we realize Swafford’s mental terrain cannot be altered back toward innocence, and much like the film itself, his disregard for easy answers leaves a fractured impression of war outside the realm of cinematic familiarity. He will indeed be living in mental shit hole for the rest of his life, more so than we can ever know.

Road to Perdition (Mendes, 2002)

Looking back at this beautiful and frustrating straight up Noir from director Sam Mendes, it’s hard to get past the constant Hollywood gloss (i.e. Thomas Newman’s score and David Self’s book-ended voice over narration) or the tedious performance by child actor Tyler Hoechlin. However, watching Mendes’ sophomore effort for a second time, the faults are outweighed by Conrad L. Hall’s brilliant cinematography and Tom Hank’s solid performance. One ends up complimenting the other and there’s no better example than in the rain soaked shootout when Hanks guns down a group of gangsters in the dead of night. Mendes lowers the soundtrack and lets Hall tell the story with images, a welcome change from the rest of the film. When the bullets riddle each man without a sound, we get the sense Mendes is maturing into a major talent, not relying on the typical aesthetics to make an impact. It’s one of the most stunning sequences in American film and it’s too bad the rest of the picture doesn’t have that same magnetic feel. It’s also important to note Paul Newman and Daniel Craig, who both turn in complex and slithery performances, and the themes of stopping generational violence between father and son, expertly conveyed through Hank’s painful glances. Road to Perdition is not the masterpiece I remember and it’s tough to give up those memories of perfection. But there will always be Tom and Conrad shooting in the rain, and that is perfect.