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.

Anatomy of a Scene – The Dream

“In his 30+ years as a police officer, he means well but he has noticed an increasingly brutal fact that is inescapable. The world has become more unforgiving, violent, and it is hard for him to make an impact whereas at the beginning of his career, he sought to make it a better place.”

Tommy Lee Jones is an elderly police officer overmatched in the excellent ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2017). He is overmatched for a number of reasons including not being able to keep up with the actions of violent men who show no compassion or no remorse. Throughout the film, he is always just a step behind the sociopathic Anton Chigurh and fails to either apprehend him or to prevent him from killing innocent people. In his 30+ years as a police officer, he means well but he has noticed an increasingly brutal fact that is inescapable. The world has become more unforgiving, violent, and it is hard for him to make an impact whereas at the beginning of his career, he sought to make it a better place.

Ed Tom Bell is your average protagonist who means well, wants to do right in his work, and believes he can do good but finds himself overmatched and overwhelmed by what he is asked to do. When he thinks of his future, he wonders what is left for him and if retirement will bring him peace or have him think back on what could be.

The dream scene begins with Ed Tom, now retiring, looking out of his window at his farm’s seemingly barren landscape with a sole tree to his left through the window behind him. A man of seemingly few hobbies and fewer words, he thinks about his day ahead and thinks about the possibility of riding around on his horse. Not too enthused about it, he also asks his wife if he should help around the house. Seemingly because he is less than skilled at this work, his wife believes it’s better that “he not.” He asks if his wife will join him riding but she is still working and a member of society actively.

Resigned to his fate as a retiree instead of being an active police officer, he reflects to his wife that he’s had dreams and he wants to share them. She says that he has time for them now and that she’ll be polite while he remembers them. He goes ahead and states that there were ‘two dreams’, they were ‘peculiar’ and both of them involved his father who has long passed away. Ed Tom is an older man than his father ever was indicating his father passed away at a younger age that of which Ed Tom will live to be longer.

The first dream is almost like a flash as most of our dreams tend to be with the details muddled and hard to recall. Ed Tom only states that he meets up with his young father in town and he leaves him some money perhaps as a way of his father being there for him even if he wasn’t present physically in his life. Similar to losing his father early in life, Ed Tom believes he lost his money in the dream as well leaving him without help as his father’s early death may have inadvertently done.

The second dream is much more imaginative and involve Ed Tom and his father living in ‘older times’ perhaps when the West was not settled and was lawless. He is no longer a police officer maintaining law and order but rather a horse rider having adventures with his father as he wishes they perhaps would have had time for had he lived longer.

This second dream is much more vivid as Ed Tom recalls how it is cold, they are going through a mountain pass together. They ride together in the snow among the mountains of the night until his father rides past him with no explanation and his blanket wrapped tight against him. This is confusing to Ed Tom at first knowing how hard it is to be without his father who he loves and must face the cold world without him as if he has been abandoned again. Though he may have lost his father, Ed Tom recalls how his father was carrying ahead a fire and a horn of a golden moon color, which gave him comfort despite the fact that he was not with him riding together.

“He was going on ahead, fixing to make a fire.” Ed Tom believes his father in the dream is out there doing this noble act in the middle of all the dark and cold, which is brutal to handle. “I knew whenever I got there, he’d be there…then I woke up.” The hope that Ed Tom haves is that his father even though it seems like he abandoned him as the son is that he really is instead looking out for him and paving the road ahead with light so he would not abandon his hope.

He believes that his father even though he may not be there with him wants him to keep going ahead and to meet him eventually instead of becoming deterred. He paves the way for his son to chase the flame of his absence and to resolve to not let the dark encapsulate him fully. Ed Tom’s expression about the dream is one of resigned sadness that his father is no longer around but also one of lingering strength to believe his death was not in vain and that he will reunite with him one day. His father, like him later, use their lives to keep the flame and the light moving forward even when surrounded by the darkest aspects of human nature.

Like any dream scene in a movie, this one has a deeper meaning behind it related to one man’s grief involving the loss of not only his livelihood but of his hope for a brighter future for humanity. Having seen the horrors that people inflict on one another, he may be resigned to that fact but he also believes his father would have wanted him to keep the flame ‘alive’ and to keep carrying it forward throughout his life even if things looked bleak. His death did not stop Ed Tom from keeping the flame moving in his own life and to carrying it forward in the hopes that he would bring it to his father someday when they would eventually be reunited in another lifetime or in another dream that seemed real.