Sam Mendes is the steady holding midfielder of filmmaking. He’s the Spaghetti Bolognese of directors. He’s the swiss army knife of cinema, very handy, but you wouldn’t have one on your Christmas list. If that sounds harsh, it isn’t. Mendes is a terrific director. He has a new film out later this year, Empire of Light, it’ll be very good, and there won’t be a single person in attendance sporting a Sam Mendes t-shit.
The 56-year-old director introduced himself to the world in scintillating style with the masterpiece American Beauty. This dark comedy was akin to a Jonathan Franzen novel, full of realist absurdity and the bracing everyday juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy. Then his next movie literally took inspiration from a novel, but this time a graphic one. The laughs in Road to Perdition were non-existent, plastic bags blowing in the wind hadn’t even been invented.
However, both films were a success—only they were successes akin to Mr Kipling cracking the perfect Battenberg recipe and then moving on to the automobile industry. Surely, Mendes’ next film would at least shoulder toward some sort of pedestal he could perch upon… it was Jarhead. In relative terms, this was seen as a blip, but in truth, it’s probably north of middling in retrospect and some of the criticism is merely derived from the confusion that critics faced when the new Oscar-baiting darling took a commercial turn.
Thereafter, Mendes has never once shepherded himself towards a style. And that isn’t merely tied down to a genre either. Plenty of directors have waltzed around the DVD racks. However, usually, there is one realm that they always return to. Martin Scorsese is perhaps the quintessential guide on this front—he has offered up comedies, family-friendly odes to cinema, horrors and more, but generally, he always returns to all-American tales examining the underbelly of society.
And beyond the footloose genre flourishes, there is always something universally Scorsese about his pictures. When it comes to Mendes, however, I’m not sure that there is a single defining thread in his work. You could miss the credits for Hugo and still hazard a guess that Scorsese is behind it, but you wouldn’t have a clue that the future James Bond phenom was behind indie comedy Away We Go.
Of all of modern cinema’s greatest directors, Mendes is the least identifiable. His only reoccurring trope is a guarantee of directorial quality. It’s not a bad one to have, but it hasn’t enamoured him with a legion of fans. You go to watch the new Bond, you go to watch the new acclaimed war movie, you don’t go to watch the new Sam Mendes film.
However, it would be very harsh to say that he lacks individualism as a director—his strength is that he lets the screenplay do the talking. As such, his filmography is among the strongest and most consistent of any director working today. Nevertheless, it’s still curious that a BluRay boxset of his work would be like a pick and mix collection of sweets, savoury snacks and maybe some potpourri sprinkled on top.