Anatomy of a Scene -‘The Life We Chose; The Life We Lead’

“One scene that conveys that ‘movie magic’ to me is a scene of verbal confrontation between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002).”

Movie magic is an illustrious concept to grasp but it often happens when you have those special moments to show off the full acting prowess by men or women at the top of their game. Moments like these are increasingly hard to come by when most movies today focus on non-stop action, horror, or thrills without taking the time to stop and let actors perform their best to act like real people in real situations. One scene that conveys that ‘movie magic’ to me is a scene of verbal confrontation between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002).

In another article, I wrote about my thoughts on this beloved movie of mine now almost twenty years of age but still ripe for a rewatch for me whenever the weather gets colder, and the sun goes down earlier. ‘Road to Perdition’ is a serious film with serious actors. This particular scene titled, ‘The Life We Chose, The Life We Lead’ lets these two juggernauts of Hollywood use their acting skillset to the fullest without any action distractions or cheap thrills.

Director Sam Mendes and the late and great Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall are able to use the muted lighting, the wide lens camera to help focus all of the audience’s attention on Hanks’ and Newman’ characters at a pivotal scene in the film. A good movie lets the attention focus in on the actors and heightens the importance of the dialogue so that nothing is missed, and every word, facial expression, and bodily movement means something to the plot. I fully appreciate this scene because it strips down the movie to its bare bones and puts its faith in the leading actors who make it a great film to begin with. When you are surrounded by great talent, you don’t obscure their abilities but rather let them shine in their roles for all viewers to enjoy.

Without spoiling too much ahead for readers who have not seen the movie, this ‘Road to Perdition’ scene focuses on the evolving conflict between Irish American Mob boss John Rooney (played by Paul Newman) and his loyal enforcer turned outcast named Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks). They are at odds over the murder of his wife, Annie, and his youngest son, Peter, early in the film by John’s only son, Connor, who is now on the run from Michael but whom is being protected by John and his mob associates throughout the Midwest U.S. Both John and Michael find themselves protecting their own sons from each other while mourning the loss of their own special ‘father-son’-like relationship.

The old English idiom of ‘blood being thicker than water’ looms heavily in this dark scene as both men must sacrifice their friendship, their employer-employee relationship, and perhaps their own kin for these acts of bloodshed to stop. In this movie, the Road to Perdition or ‘hell’ is paved with the bloody sins that each man has committed to save the innocence of those they still love.

‘Road to Perdition’ – Confrontation (Scene)

The metaphors of the scene itself especially at the beginning speak for themselves. John and Michael meet secretly in the catacombs of a Church basement where their talk of murder and betrayal is almost drowned out by the church choir practicing above them as they try to avoid more bloodshed. Similar to angels singing from heaven, the men are in ‘hell’ as they confess to each other how as ‘murderers’, they’ll never see ‘heaven’ like the dark catacombs they find themselves meeting in away from the light of the church or of the day.

In a last-ditch attempt to save John from certain death at Michael’s hand, Michael Sullivan tries to convince John that his own son is betraying him. Michael alleges that Connor is stealing from John and has been opening bank accounts while taking money from the men that Michael has killed on Connor and John’s orders. As an enforcer for the Irish mafia, Michael thought he was helping John keep control over his mob empire, but he instead was lining Connor’s pockets with blood money.

Amazingly, John is aware of all this even before Michael gives him the account statements from all the money Connor has been compiling over the years. With remorse and regret in his eyes, John Rooney admits to Michael that he tried to protect Michael from the fact that he was working for Connor and not himself but that he still loved him ‘like’ a son. The key word in their discussion is ‘like’ because Michael is not John’s son, but Connor is. Both men must do what’s in their son’s best interests even though they don’t always see eye to eye with their own sons.

John gave Michael and his wife Annie a home, consistent income, and the ability to live a middle-class American life and in return, Michael killed on John’s behalf and tried to protect his family from the gritty truth of being an enforcer. Michael lost Annie and Peter because of his murderous past but it is not too late at this point in the movie for his only remaining son, Michael Jr. Connor knows Michael Jr. is aware of the murders of his mom and brother along with Finn McGovern, a man who Connor was stealing from so Connor wants Michael Jr. dead. Michael Sr. and his son are on the run from Connor, but they know that once John Rooney is dead, the rest of the mob will give up Connor leaving Michael Sr. in a devastating position of playing ‘cat and mouse’ with his former boss.

Michael Sr. tries to reason with John to give up Connor to spare John’s life. John won’t allow Michael to kill Connor as revenge while he’s alive even though Connor murdered Annie and Peter previously. John can’t let Michael Sr. keep using his losses as a justify for another murder, which would be his son, Connor. “There are only murderers in this room. Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead…and there is only one guarantee: None of us will see heaven!”

“Michael (Jr.) could.”, Michael Sr. hopefully responds. With his mob ties gone, his family torn apart, and his livelihood evaporated, Michael Sr. has one mission left in life and that is to protect his son’s innocence. Michael Jr. is a good teenage boy shielded from his father’s history of violence. To make Michael Sr.’s life worth living, it is worth protecting his son from Connor, his father John, and the rest of the Chicago mafia. Even if it means Michael Sr. dying to protect his son, it would be worth it to Michael to protect his son’s innocence and prevent him from becoming a murderer. At this point in the film, Michael Sr. knows just what to do and that involves killing John, who will keep hunting the two of them to protect Connor, his son.

To have Michael Jr. see heaven, to not go down the same path as his father, to live a full, happy life away from the violence and bloodshed he has already bore witness to, it is up to Michael Sr. to do what he must to protect his son from John’s son. The choir stops singing at the end of the scene signaling that Michael Sr. must decide about what to do once and for all about John.

            “And if I go?”, Michael Sr. asks of John if he lets Connor and John live.

            “Then I will mourn the son I lost…”, John tells him and walks away, with tears glistening in his eyes.

Michael Sr. finds himself with an impossible decision that his life of murder has led him to. Either he lets John, his boss, go free and let Connor escape as well, or he must stay and kill John for not giving up Connor to him. Either John will mourn ‘the son he lost’ meaning Michael Sr. or Michael Sr. will end up mourning the death of John, the ‘father he loved’ even though they are not related by blood.

Throughout this pivotal scene in the film, you can see the many years of friendship, love, and trust that each man shared with one another. Despite them leading a notorious life of crime and violence, they know they have done wrong and will eventually pay for it in this life or the next. The cinematography even indicates from this scene that they may end up perhaps in a ‘hell’ like in the catacombs of a dungeon that they find themselves in now with no exit in sight and away from the singing angels above them in heaven.

However, Michael Sr. knows his son must not lead the same life of misfortunate, pain, and regret that he has. While Connor, John’s son, is now a murderer like John is, Michael Sr. resolves to sacrifice his own innocence to protect that of his own son before it’s too late. In the process, he must continue to avenge the deaths of his wife and other son to protect the only precious thing he has left in this world. Even though he loves John like a ‘father’, he is the only man standing in the way of killing the man who murdered his family and preventing that same man from killing his only son left.

Both men walk away knowing that one of them is going to die after this meeting. The question remains: which man will it be and who is willing to sacrifice himself first to save their own son in the process? This scene of ‘Road to Perdition’ is one of the best in the film because it allows two great men of acting stature do what they do best with just dialogue, emotion, and having amazing chemistry between them even in a fictional world. It’s why I believe this scene and this movie is one of the great films of the 21st century and to which I will keep returning to watch in the future. When acting professors want to show a great scene of pure dialogue, I hope they choose to show their students this one because it will long live on in pure film lore and reverence.

‘Road to Perdition’ – Film Review and Analysis

One of the most underrated movies of the 2000’s was Sam Mendes’s ‘Road to Perdition’, which was released to critical acclaim back in 2002 and did pretty well at the box office with around $200 million in ticket sales. While some people would be skeptical of watching ‘Road to Perdition’ at first because they think it’s your average crime / mafia movie that doesn’t have much to offer in terms of storyline and symbolism, they would be wrong when it comes to this film.

Sam Mendes, who directed two other great films ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’, does an excellent job here as this movie is beautifully shot and has a stellar cast. ‘Road to Perdition’ also benefited from the legendary cinematography work of the departed Conrad L. Hall for which he won a posthumous Oscar for ‘Best Cinematography’ for this film after he passed away in 2003. The scenery and settings for this movie help to create quite a unique atmosphere and the wide shots, long angles that are used help to make this film stand out as being above average. Beyond just the cinematography, the acting by the cast also stands out.

When you look back to see who was starring in the main roles for ‘Road to Perdition’, it is a very impressive list. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan Sr., the lead role of the film and a conflicted Irish mafia man caught between his past and keeping his son sheltered from the consequences of his actions. Paul Newman, one of the greatest American actors of all-time plays the role of John Rooney, an Irish mafia boss, who is also conflicted between his paternal feelings of love for Michael Sr., and his wish to protect his own son, Connor, played by a young Daniel Craig, from his own destructive sins. Rounding out the list is Jude Law, who plays a gifted hit-man / grisly photographer known as Harlan McGuire, and Stanley Tucci, who plays a high-ranking member of the Italian mafia known as Frank Nitti. A young actor who steals most of his scenes is the young but talented Tyler Hoechlin who is Michael Sullivan Jr. in the film, a boy who is coming to terms with his father’s lifestyle and his ties to the mafia. A truly impressive cast of Academy Award winners and nominees, which makes this film even more of a lasting treasure.

‘Road to Perdition’ really brings the atmosphere and makes the setting feel real as it portrays life in Great Depression-era America by focusing on specifically both on the city of Chicago and its’ rural hinterlands, cornfields of greater Illinois. The movie really portrays well the last decade of America being discovered and settled, while undergoing deep economic difficulties, as the Irish and Italian mafias become a source of income and employment when none could be had.

Most movies don’t seem to want to portray the mafia as having been a well-oiled machine that acted like a legitimate business, but ‘Road to Perdition’ makes clear that there are ways to look at the criminal enterprises that achieved a lot of prominence during the Great Depression due to their ability to bootleg and their appeal to provide a good income to men without work.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tom Hanks) is an enforcer and bodyguard for the Irish mafia in the Chicago area of Illinois who has a close relationship with his boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), who is implied to have helped Michael Sr. a lot with a home, a steady income, and a purpose which is quite difficult to come by during the height of the Great Depression. Michael Sr. is a flawed man who has done murder and committed other crimes for his boss, Mr. Rooney, and knows that it may cost him his life. Despite his past transgressions, he wants to protect his family from his sins and wants to keep his boys from knowing about what he does for a living.

Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) is shown to be jealous of the close relationship that his father, John, and Michael Sr. have and is resentful of him. Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) is distant from Michael Sr., his father due to late working hours and distant lifestyle. As any boy would like to know about his father, Michael Jr. decides to find out the truth about who his father, Michael Sr. is, and what he does for Mr. Rooney. At this point, the plot really takes off in tragic and unexpected ways leaving the viewer engaged in the storyline and the eventual outcome. As mentioned before, the acting done by this legendary cast helps make the film what it is and what it still is today.

Beyond just being a typical mobster movie, ‘Road to Perdition’ has a number of poignant and thought-provoking themes that stay with you even after the end credits begin to roll. This film goes over the trials and tribulations that fathers and sons can have with each other even when they love and care for each other dearly. Michael Sr. and John Rooney are not related by blood by have a relationship similar to a father and son as Mr. Rooney was around for Michael and his family when they had nothing. He is heavily indebted to Mr. Rooney even if he knows what he is doing is wrong by committing violent acts for the mafia. Still, their bond appears to be unbreakable and they get along quite well with each other.

To the contrary, both of their relationships with their respective sons are shaky at best and hostile at worst. There is a considerable distance between Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. due to the fact that Michael Sr. makes his lifestyle and his work for Mr. Rooney a well-kept secret. Michael Sr. does not show much affection or love for his boy and it’s not made clear until the end of the film why that is. Michael Sr. obviously cares for his boy but likely doesn’t want his son to know about the horrible things he’s done to keep him, his brother, and his wife save from harm or want. Still though, Michael Jr. does not want to be kept away from his father and who he is.

He ends up pursuing the truth whether or not his father wants him to or not leading to quite a turn of events when the truth comes to light. Connor Rooney, John’s son is quite envious of the close relationship that Michael Sr. has with his father compared to him. However, this is for a number of reasons. Connor is very much unlike his father, John, and has a number of character and personality flaws that make him a liability to the family. Connor is shown to be impulsive, manipulative, untrustworthy, and greedy but the conflict comes to light when John Rooney must decide if he should stick by his son’s side or give him up due to his past misdeeds. As John Rooney says to Michael Sullivan Sr. during one of the movie’s best scenes, “Sons were put on this Earth to trouble their fathers.”

During one of the movie’s most touching scenes, Michael Sr. tells Michael Jr. about a town called an idyllic town called Perdition, Illinois, which has beautiful scenery along the beach of Lake Michigan, and where the Sullivan family has visited before when Michael Jr. was a little boy. Perdition is portrayed as a goal for the two Michaels to get to in order to start their lives anew and escape the sins of the past. It’s a way for Michael Sr. to get redemption after taking care of his ties to the mafia and by trying to make up for what he did wrong as both a father and a man. The word ‘Perdition’ as defined in other words is ‘hell’ or ‘complete and utter damnation’ in more religious terms. Michael Sr. may try to redeem his sins by going to church or by rectifying the wrongs he’s done by getting revenge on the men who wronged him in the past but he knows deep down that it may not be enough.

If he is on the ‘Road to Perdition’ or the road to hell, the film shows the audience that he wants to keep his son, Michael Jr., from going down that same path. He wants badly for his son to have a better life and a brighter future away from violence and death. Michael Sr. won’t let his downfall lead to that of his son’s as well. Even if Michael Sr. is a murderer and a sinner, he knows what’s still right from wrong and he is going to do his best to preserve the innocence and goodness of his son. As a father, he is flawed but he still loves his son dearly and wants the best for him still.

Certain moves fit a certain season of the year well and ‘Road to Perdition’ is no exception. The winter setting, the Chicago cold, and the mature themes help lead it to being an ideal film to be watched during the depths of winter in January and February. Without spoiling anything, the film is a real story with real characters who are flawed in their own ways but who each have their own complex motives that drive the plot forward. This film, most of all, touches the audience emotionally and will pull on your heartstrings.

‘Road to Perdition’ is very underrated film that remains one of my favorite movies to this day. I highly recommend ‘Road to Perdition’ to other movie buffs who are looking to watch a crime / mafia film that has a soul. In addition to having an all-star cast, a renowned director, and a legendary cinematographer at the helm, ‘Road to Perdition’s music score composed by Thomas Newman is excellent and fits perfectly into the many moods of the film and has some stirring moments that add to the film’s setting. If you’re snowed in this weekend from the blizzard, do yourself a favor and go watch ‘Road to Perdition.’

%d bloggers like this: