Sam Mendes, auteur?
A Look at American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Cabaret
It is very reasonable, and probably accurate, to say that
a filmmaker cannot be called an auteur with only two films to
his credit. But all auteurs had to start somewhere, and there
was a time when even Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock had made only two
films. Certainly it is too early to declare that Sam Mendes is an auteur,
but it is not too early to begin to look for the signs of an auteur
in his films. In fact, though the term auteur applies strictly to filmmaking,
Mendes has a celebrated career as a stage director that may perhaps add
to our investigation. In order to establish Mendes as a potential auteur,
we mush establish that there are recognizable themes and visual styles
running through his work. Even at this early stage in his career as a
filmmaker, I believe that this can be done.
American Beauty brought Mendes into the film world,
though he was already well known for his London and Broadway theatre work,
including Assassins, The Glass Menagerie, The Blue
Room, Oliver!, The Cherry Orchard, and the Tony
Award-winning revival of Cabaret, which we will return to in
a bit. Released in 1999, Beauty is one of the most amazing film
directorial debuts in the history of the movies, and went on to win many
deserved awards for itself and for Mendes. The setting is familiar: suburban
America. The characters may even be familiar: the dominated husband stuck
in a drudgerous job, the overly-enthusiastic career-driven wife, the alienated
daughter, the homophobic retired army colonel, the sexpot cheerleader,
etc. We’ve seen them all before. But never have their lives been
laid raw as harshly or unwaveringly as here. Many movies are distasteful.
Some movies are beautiful. American Beauty manages to be both.
Mendes was criticized by some for judging American suburbanites
too harshly, and backed off a little with his second film, Road to
Perdition. While certain parts of Perdition are shocking
and disturbing, as a whole it is much more mellow than American Beauty.
This is primarily a story of relationships among fathers and sons, and
though the characters happen to be gangsters, they are much more personable
than anyone in Beauty. Critics disagree on whether this general
likableness is good for the picture or not, but it is unquestionably there.
The elements of Perdition, too, are recognizable: 1920s-era gangsters,
in and around the Chicago area, engage in an internal war that barely
affects the population at large. Violence leads to more violence, only
ending when all the combatants are killed. Mike Sullivan, though, is not
the gangster of 1930s movies—he is only in the business because
he owes everything to gangland boss John Rooney, and because he knows
how to do nothing else. The last thing he wants is for his young son,
Michael, to follow in his footsteps.
So if the message of American Beauty is that seemingly
normal, upstanding families are actually filled with perverse and unbalanced
people who hate each other, the message of Road to Perdition
is that seemingly wicked, unredeemable killers can truly care about their
families and each other. The films seem to be the inverse of each other,
and to have little in common. But upon closer inspection, they actually
have a number of things in common, both thematically and stylistically.
In fact, the cursory explanation of American Beauty at the beginning
of this paragraph is not all there is to the story. For although the characters
in Beauty do exhibit hatred toward each other, the filmmakers
tell us that this is not the way it has to be. Lester recovers his humanity
by the end, and in the moment of his death, all he can think of is how
much beauty there is in the world, and how much he loved his wife and
his daughter. So ultimately, though “American Beauty” refers
to the roses that Carolyn grows so perfectly and are a symbol of everything
that is wrong with the Burnhams, we must also realize that the film is
about seeing the glimpses of beauty that remain in an ugly world.
Ricky, the compulsive videographer in Beauty,
even considers death to be beautiful. And there is certainly a lot of
death in Road to Perdition. Mike Sullivan is the “Angel
of Death,” carrying out hits for boss and surrogate father John
Rooney. Though his use of violence has been far decreased from Max Collins’
graphic novel on which Perdition is based, it is still very much
a part of his life and character. Perdition is a movie about
gangsters, but it is not a traditional gangster movie. Violence is not
glamorized (though it is beautiful, in a way, due to Conrad Hall’s
cinematography), and Sullivan doesn’t want gangland power, only
protection for what remains of his family. In his introduction to the
novel, Collins noted the impact that Bonnie & Clyde had on
him when he first saw it as a teenager.
His father had been to the scene of the final massacre when he had been
a boy. We see the first shootings in Perdition through the eyes
of 12-year-old Michael Sullivan. The gunshot sounds are not muted, as
they are in most movies. The flashes of light from the tommy guns are
sharp and bright. Though there have been much more bloody and disgusting
scenes of violence in movies since Bonnie & Clyde, not until
Road to Perdition has there been anything as traumatizing as
Gangland warfare is about as ugly a scene as America can
come up with; we’ve had no modern wars here, and the Civil War is
too far removed from us to be very real. But Mendes has experience with
the ugliest time and place in modern history: Hitler’s Berlin circa
1935. His 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret won many Tony Awards
and universal praise. Staged in an actual nightclub setting, this Cabaret
involved its audience to a much higher degree than had previous versions,
both explicitly (the Emcee has audience members dance on stage) and implicitly
(though they may not act, they are in the Cabaret, and thus are part of
the world of it). This seems innocuous enough at the beginning, filled
with raunchy songs and budding romances, but soon takes a darker turn,
as the Nazi threat looms larger and larger. By the finale, when the Emcee
reminds us that our troubles are forgotten and everything is beautiful
in the Cabaret, it has become a vicious irony. The orchestra continues
gaily, but is undercut by a growing chord of fear and terror that is positively
demoralizing. And I’ve only heard the soundtrack!
Mendes pushes the limits of what the audience can take
in his work. American Beauty perhaps demands more from us, asking
us to accept that Lester, after two hours of fighting, fantasizing, masturbating,
and smoking pot, is at last grateful for his life and at peace about it.
Perdition is more conservative, merely asking us to believe that
Sullivan can be both a killer and a loving father. Cosmo Landesman of
the London Times Culture Supplement believes this is an easy thing to
indeed, other movies have tread this ground before. Where Landesman is
wrong is in his assumption that when Sullivan teaches his son not to become
a killer, Sullivan is redeemed. Sullivan is not redeemed, as Rooney makes
very clear in an earlier scene—no one in this movie is going to
heaven, except for possibly Michael Jr. And it is his salvation that drives
the story. In a way, this is the most disturbing thing about Perdition.
We are not supposed to believe that Sullivan is somehow saved at the end
despite all the evil he has done. We must accept that he is beyond redemption,
and yet understand why Michael still loves him. The fact that Tom Hanks
plays Sullivan makes it easier to do the latter—it is difficult
not to love Tom Hanks—and harder to do the former—Hanks is
almost too likable to be damned. Still, his sincerity is what makes scenes
like the final shootout work. We have to believe that Sullivan really
loves Rooney like a father, and yet is willing to kill him in order to
get to Connor and avenge and protect his family.
With these three works, at least, Sam Mendes seems intent
on presenting familiar things to us in a new and shocking way. Cabaret
has been through several stage productions and a movie, all of which are
based on John Van Druten’s dramatic play I Am a Camera,
in turn based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.
Nazi Germany has been portrayed many times, but “just when we thought
no one could show us anything new about the rise of Nazism, along comes
this Cabaret to remind us that art will always instruct in ways
wondrous and enlightening, though sometimes terrifying.”
The seedy side of suburban and small-town America has been explored in
such varied films as Blue Velvet and The ‘Burbs.
Gangster films have gone through several variations, but have never really
disappeared since they were invented in the 1930s. But Mendes’ works
brings a fresh and scathingly brutal, yet ultimately humanist point of
And all three of these works implicate us, the audience
in the action. They are all narrated; in each, someone is talking to us,
telling us a story. Nancy Franklin of The New Yorker says of
Cabaret: “…you’re uneasily aware of…being
more than a spectator at the passing parade.”
Lester tells us that though we do not understand what he means in his
dying speech, we will someday—someday we will make the same discovery
that he has made. Young Michael treats us as though we know something
of his father, that we have false information that he must set straight.
Sullivan himself shoots at us in one scene, as we stand in for someone
he loves, but must kill. These techniques pull us deeper into the story,
making us feel that we have some part to play, or at least that something
is required of us, even if it is only to reflect upon our own lives in
light of what we have seen.
Now let us turn to some formal considerations. Any discussion
of the visual similarities of Road to Perdition and American
Beauty has to consider that they share not only a director, but also
a cinematographer—well-known and multi-award-winning Conrad L. Hall.
Quite possibly much of the visual style could be attributed to him, and
not to Mendes. However, Hall has made relatively few movies in the last
several years, and the couple I have seen did not particularly strike
me visually, as did both Beauty and Perdition. This
is not to say that he made no contributions—Mendes has stated more
than once that he did. Also, many of the visual similarities of the two
films are in the mise-en-scène, not in lighting or filters or anything
traditionally in the realm of the cinematographer.
Mendes’ background as a stage director does not prepare
one for the remarkably cinematic style he uses in his films. Neither film
is stagy or confined, except where the mood requires them to be constricting.
However, he does tend toward a very careful mise-en-scène. Shots
are usually balanced—doorways in the center of the screen, a tall
something on the left balanced by a tall something on the right, a splash
of dominant color in the middle. In American Beauty this indicates
the seeming stability of the family. In Road to Perdition, shots
like the one of Michael looking through a perfectly centered doorway of
light at his father divesting himself of various items including a gun
indicate that Michael wants and believes his father to be an upright upholder
of the law. In Beauty, the dominant color is red, the color of
the American Beauty roses that Carolyn grows. These roses stand
as the symbol of middle-class degeneracy, appearing on the dinner table
as the family talks past each other, in Lester’s fantasies of the
teenage Angela, and finally, foreshadowing Lester’s bloody death.
Perdition doesn’t really have a dominant color—it
is not a bright film, and its colors are muted, befitting its Depression-era
setting. Its flashes of brightness come from gun muzzles.
There is one scene in each movie where Mendes uses specifically
cinematic means in a shot. Both of them are death scenes. In both cases,
we have known for almost the entire movie that this person is going to
die. Lester Burnham tells us in his opening voice-over that he will be
dead in less than a year. Mike Sullivan spends months hunting down Connor
Rooney. And despite the fact that both deaths are anticipated, and so
neither really surprises us, we do not see either one of them happen.
In American Beauty a pan begins on a bunch of American Beauty
roses and moves onto a perfectly white tile wall. A shot goes off and
the white wall is splattered with blood matching the roses at the beginning
of the shot. Only when Jane and Ricky come downstairs to we see Lester’s
body. Sullivan, having killed everyone who stood in the way of his finding
Connor, is allowed into Connor’s hotel room, where Connor is taking
a bath. Sullivan calmly walks into the bathroom and shoots at something
we cannot see. He turns and walks out, catching his sleeve on the doorknob
of a mirrored door, which slowly closes, revealing Connor’s dead
body in a bathtub of bloody water. Since killing Connor would seem to
be the climax of the movie, everything it has led up to so far, it might
seem like a cheat not to let us in on it, yet the way it is shown feels
absolutely right.. And in Beauty, we’ve seen many despicable
things, yet we do not see this. Death is not the point—it may be
a release, but it is not the raison d’etre of Mendes’
films. It is a symptom of a lifestyle (“In a way, I’m already
dead,” says Lester), not a satisfying end…at least not for
Tables are very important to the way Mendes tells his stories.
Scenes around tables chart the changing relationships between characters.
This is more pronounced in Perdition, but it is there in Beauty,
too. There are two main table scenes in Beauty—one is near
the beginning, when we are first becoming acquainted with the Burnhams,
the second comes after Lester quits his job. Notice the placement of the
candles on the table in each of these two scenes. In the first, Carolyn
and Lester are politely, but distantly and condescendingly, trying to
talk to Jane, who is stubbornly refusing to respond civilly. The two taller
candles are on the outside, the shorter ones on the inside, indicating
that Lester and Carolyn are looking down on Jane, treating her like a
child. The bowl of roses on the table almost overwhelms Jane in our view—she
seems small. But in the second scene, it is Carolyn and Lester who are
behaving like children: yelling at each other, making sarcastic and mean
comments, throwing food, and generally making fools of themselves. The
candles are inverted from their previous position—now Jane is on
top, able to look down at the childishness of her parents from her newfound
maturity gained from her relationship with Ricky. The bowl is now empty,
allowing Jane to be seen as the sanest person in the room, and the least
affected by the demoralization of the film.
While many defining moments in American Beauty
(most every moment in it is defining in some way) do not take place at
a table, almost all scenes that establish or change relationships in Road
to Perdition do. The original dynamic of the Sullivans is established
at their kitchen table—the distance of Mike from his family, how
he seems to favor Peter just the slightest bit, the way Annie Sullivan
rebukes the children for trying to delve into their father’s business.
It is also clear that something has changed the next time they sit down
to eat together, after Michael has witnessed the hit. The relationship
between Mike Sullivan and John and Connor Rooney is made clear at a table
as well, after the business meeting wherein John embarrassingly reprimands
Connor for taking the hit into his own hands, while Mike is praised for
salvaging it as well as he could. Though we are not told in words how
these three men feel about each other, it is clear from the visual of
a seething Connor still sitting at the table as Sullivan and Rooney walk
off together behind him. Rooney is disappointed in his son and wishes
he were more like Sullivan. However, this is a somewhat misleading scene,
as Rooney will soon choose blood ties over love ties, refusing to turn
Connor over to Sullivan, despite what Connor had done to Sullivan’s
family. Finally, the defining moment in Mike and Michael’s relationship
comes at the table in the farmhouse. They learn that they are really quite
a bit alike—something that scares Mike, who, unlike most fathers
(unlike Rooney), wants nothing less than for his son to be like him.
And the final formal similarity between the two films is
the use of water to herald death. In fact, the Internet
Movie Database has already listed this as a “director’s
trademark” in the trivia section under Road to Perdition.
It may be a little early to grant Mendes director’s trademarks,
but it has so far held true. The only time it rains in American Beauty
is the last night of Lester Burnham’s life. Both of the major shootouts
in Road to Perdition (the one that Michael witnesses, and the
one in which Sullivan kills Rooney) occur in the rain. Connor is shot
in a bathtub full of water. Sullivan dies in a house by a lake. There
are several deaths in Perdition that are not accompanied by water,
but none of them are major, important deaths. All the deaths of central
characters, or that greatly affect central characters, are marked by the
presence of water. In the Sullivan/Rooney shooting, in fact, the water
takes over, becoming all that is heard on the soundtrack. We see the blazing
tommy gun, and the goons falling to the ground, but we hear no gunshot
sounds until Sullivan turns the gun on Rooney (and on us, for the camera
takes Rooney’s place) and the screen and soundtrack fill with flame
Perhaps these visual devices can be credited to Conrad
Hall. Perhaps these themes are inherent in the source material, and are,
in fact, fairly common themes in film and literature. But Mendes chose
to work with these sources (and Road to Perdition has changed
significantly from the novel, whether by Mendes or not), and has chosen
to work with Hall twice. Certainly we cannot yet make an airtight case
for Mendes as an auteur. But these similarities cannot be ignored,
and we must at least acknowledge the possibility that Mendes may be considered,
by film studies in the future, an auteur.
Ball, Alan. American Beauty: The Shooting Script.
Newmarket Press: New York, 1999.
Collins, Max. Road to Perdition.
Ebert, Roger. review, American Beauty. Chicago
Ebert, Roger. review, Road to Perdition. Chicago
Landesman, Cosmo. review, Road to Perdition. London
Times Culture. Sep. 22, 2002.
Mendes, Sam. Introduction to American Beauty: The Shooting
Script. Newmarket Press: New York, 1999.
Peter, John. review, “Uncle Vanya”. London
Times Culture. Sep. 22, 2002.
Rosenfield, Bill. liner notes, Cabaret: The New Broadway
Cast Recording. BMG Classics, 1999.
Schwartzbaum, Lisa. review, Road to Perdition.
Entertainment Weekly. www.ew.com
Sunshine, Linda, ed. Cabaret: The Illustrated Book
and Lyrics. Newmarket Press: New York, 1999
This paper originated as a term paper for Introduction to Film Theory
and Criticism, Webster University, Fall, 2002.
©2002 by Jandy Stone