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.

‘Everything In Its Right Place’ (A Video Retrospective)

It’s hard to really love most music videos today which tend to be shallow and lacking in any original thought. During past decades leading up to the 2000’s, it seems like actual effort and work was put into music videos of songs in order to get on MTV but also to highlight the themes of the song as well as the entire album. There are a number of my favorite artists who produce great music videos including Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, U2, Oasis, Dave Matthews Band, etc.

However, MTV and official music videos are not what they used to be. In an age of instant gratification and live concerts being streamed of the songs you love, it’s hard to appreciate music videos as being part of an increasingly crowded creative marketplace. While official music videos may be dying, creative videos and covers of songs from our favorite artists seem to be on the rise. Considering that music videos are usually for hit singles of certain songs and not for entire albums, there has started to be a movement towards producing independent music videos for songs that never received the official ‘music video’ song treatment.

The rise of YouTube and other video platforms has allowed creative people who are fans of good music to produce their own music videos. While they started out as being kind of cliché or very amateur, they are now becoming very professional and also very related to the lyrics of the song in question. I saw a particular music video of a favorite song of mine featured on YouTube a couple of weeks ago. The song is ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ by Radiohead and it is an excellent song by my favorite band but the one thing that this song never had was its own brilliant music video to go with it.

Because of YouTube, the creative skills of a fan named ‘Capitao Ahab’, which is a pretty fun name in its own right, although I believe the original video creator’s name is Joschka Laukeninks who created it and titled it ‘BACKSTORY.’ It is a now an unofficial music video on the popular video platform that is really well done and professionally shot that has received almost two million views. A video like this would not have existed ten years ago but luckily it does. Part of the reason why this music video is so impactful is that it works so well with the content of this particular Radiohead song.

‘Everything in Its Right Place’ like many of Radiohead’s songs are open to interpretation but it is soothing with its use of synthesizers, digitally manipulated voices, and haunting electronic sounds that sound comforting when you have your headphones on at full blast. The lyric itself of ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ focuses on how to maintain your composure and your levelheadedness as you go through life. The fan music video’s storyline of a baby becoming a boy, a man, and then an elderly man highlights the ups and downs of life and how there are ‘two colors in my head.’

The ‘two colors’ could be interpreted as the good and the bad that you will go through as you go through life’s uncertain and mysterious waters. In particular, the song begins with the oft-repeated lyric of ‘Kid A’, the title of Radiohead’s 2000 album and expresses the experiences of a ‘boy’ as he is born, grows up, matures, and eventually dies. “Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon.” Is also a lyric up to the fan’s interpretation but it implies that life can be sour as well as sweet and that you will have to taste and swallow the bitterness of life if you want to enjoy the sweet part of the fruit.

The music video begins on a hopeful note as a baby boy gains his first steps as he walks through his parents’ house. The sweetness of his childhood is referenced with meeting animals for the first time, having his 6th birthday, going to the beach, and experiencing pure joy at that age. Childhood innocence does not last forever so the boy ends up experiencing his first pains in life including the accidental burning down of his house, fights between his mother and his father, the divorce and exit of his mother from his life, pressures from his father to succeed as he ages into being a teenager.

Learning in school, riding his bicycle, summer days at the swimming pool are some of the joys of teenage life including his first experiences with girls as well with drugs and late nights with friends. Still though, the joys of discovery and youth are balanced out by his struggles with partying too much, getting into rights, being angry at the world and dealing with bad breakups. In one part of the video, the teenager emerges from the pool as a young man ready to take on the world in his 20’s. He thinks his partying days and life as a Bachelor will last forever until he stares at the woman of his dreams on New Year’s Eve and she stares back signaling a new relationship that will change his life.

They date, travel, live together, and the young man eventually proposes to the woman of his dreams. As the video speeds up, so does the aging and life of the man as he gets married, celebrates the birth of his child, and gets ready for middle-aged challenges and prospects. Moving into a house as newlyweds, getting a better job, moving up the corporate ladder, using his new car, traveling for work, going to important meetings, and shuffling along while growing a beard signifies how fast life speeds up the older you become. Sometimes, you’re running so fast that you can’t keep track of who or what you are. In the video, the man still remembers the little blissful moments of carrying his child with his beloved wife, family dinners, and trying to balance work and family until tragedy suddenly strikes.

The hardest part of life is unforeseen tragedies and we hope and pray to never experience any to happen, but this man has the tragic occurrence of seeing his wife and child running towards him across the street only to be hit by a bus and to be taken off life support. The song’s crescendo builds up as the man struggles through grief, longing, and how to move on when he knows he can’t but has to anyway. After the tragedy, what once was promising is now dull and at once he was fast to move through the world, he staggers slowly through it wondering what it is all worth and why keep going? How can one fill the void in their own heart when it was taken out of them and cannot be put back?

We see the man continue with his work, entertaining clients, meeting a new woman and getting married again but there is the lingering sense that it is not what he envisioned his life to be. He can have a child with her, but it won’t be the same as his first true love or bring back his first child. Trying to fill the void with an extramarital affair, fighting with his new wife, jogging and running to keep moving forward to futilely escape from one’s own pre-destined aging are all ways of coping both unhealthily and healthily as you go through middle age to becoming elderly in your later life.

Maybe if he stops running or walking or jogging, he will have to face his own eventual demise and departure from this world or face his memories of losing loved ones or losing his mother. The aged man with gray hairs continues to work, to exercise, to keep up his health by going to the doctor and trying to save his marriage. Some of these battles he will win, and some he will lose although we will never know from such a short video. Eventually, the man is elderly and looking back on his life from his bed and looks to be alone in the world.

However, he does not remember the tragedies that befell him as we all must endure in life sometimes. Instead, he remembers the first time he went to dance at a club, the way he looked at his firstborn child, hugging his beloved first wife, and how she stared at him lovingly on New Year’s Eve and how she stared at him at their wedding and when she gave birth to their child. He remembers the tragedy too but remembers those special moments that made his life truly worth living. You are left wondering after watching this four-minute video of a complicated, yet powerful life filled with tragedy and joy whether it was all worth it for the man. Would he do it again if he knew what was to happen in the future?

If we all knew what was to happen in the future until the end of our days, would we all do it again from the beginning? Would it be worth it even if there is pain, tragedy, and death? Would it be worth the love, joy, and pleasure that we experience as human beings as well? It really is out of our control, but this music video does an excellent job of pondering life’s deepest questions in only four minutes and only with the wistful yet dreamy lyrics of Thom Yorke from Radiohead creating a powerful combination of a great song and a great video. It may not be an original music video from Radiohead but whoever created it did a great job of getting a powerful message across to this 2-million strong audience on life, love, and loss.

If you would like to watch the music video on ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, you can find it here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnfPaaMR6Qc

‘BACKSTORY’ Full Video on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/245687147

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