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.

‘Revolutionary Road’ – Film Review and Analysis

The epic saga of Jack and Rose continues in the form of two young, suburbanite lovebirds in Connecticut who discover that married life may not be what they thought it would be. If anyone has seen the movie ‘Titanic’, you’ll notice that ‘Revolutionary Road’ features the same actors, Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio as romantically involved but not as star-crossed lovers but rather as a newly married couple. While this is a totally different film and in a different time period, part of what makes ‘Revolutionary Road’ a great and memorable film is the acting by DiCaprio and Winslet.

Once again, they are the leading roles in a movie where the acting can make or break the film. Similar to their previous movie together in ‘Titanic’, ‘Revolutionary Road’ is a character-driven film with intense emotional moments and a message that stays with you deeply after the final credits roll. Michael Shannon, a very well-renowned actor almost steals the show from Leonardo and Kate as John Giving, the brilliant yet disturbed son of the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Giving’s. Helen Giving (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband help the Wheelers to buy their home at 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.

‘Revolutionary Road’, released in 2008, was directed by Sam Mendes who has also directed other classic American movies including ‘Road to Perdition’ and ‘American Beauty.’ Mendes is a talented director who does an excellent job finding the right actors to fit the character-driven roles that they have to sell to the audience. In a way, ‘Revolutionary Road’ seems like a period piece precursor to the movie, ‘American Beauty’ in terms of its’ suburban setting and overall themes of dissatisfaction of life and a yearning for change.

Similar to his other movies, Mendes enlists Thomas Newman, my favorite movie composer to conduct the powerful and moving score to the film. The cinematography also draws you in especially in the penultimate moments where you see Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) running frantically out of remorse down Revolutionary Road after the climax of the movie. The movie’s title doesn’t give the audience too much detail on what it could be about or what the film focuses on. It is enough however to peak your curiosity especially with the two leading actors involved and the film does not disappoint in this aspect. Awarded with both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, ‘Revolutionary Road’ was a critical success even though it didn’t really light up the box office when it was released.

Unbeknownst to most, the film ‘Revolutionary Road’ was based off of the novel by Richard Yates of the same name. While the book was released in 1961, Yates wrote it as a referendum on the conformity of the 1950’s and how families across America were settling down in suburbs that were safe and secure yet did not leave much to the imagination. It’s a great work of fiction and the movie ‘Revolutionary Road’ sticks to the material quite well.

Like most couples of that age, Frank and April Wheeler meet at a friend’s party in 1948. Frank is a longshoreman and a former soldier during World War II while April is an aspiring actress when they first get to know each other. Frank’s father worked for 20 years for a sales company known as Knox Machines and sees himself in the same position unless he can think of something else. Frank is someone who is bored by the monotony of his work and desires to do something bigger with his life. Ironically, the less he cares about his sales job, the more the bosses like what he’s been doing. Frank falls in love with April and they marry each other.

The courtship and how well they actually knew each other before marrying is not covered in the film but it’s clear that they were both young when they married. The audience is left to infer that they really didn’t know each other all that well and what they expected out of their lives. After they get married, it is mentioned that April is pregnant with the couples’ first child. Because of the cheapness of land and the need for more space like many other American couples in the 1950’s, the Wheelers move to 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.

When April and Frank move in to Revolutionary Road, they are first welcomed by the realtor, Helen Givings (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband Howard Givings. The new couple is deemed to be perfect for this idyllic suburban town by the Givings even though their son, John (Michael Shannon), is unhappy with the way the Wheelers are living to each other. Lacking an understanding of normal social cues, John rants about the ‘hopeless emptiness’ of suburban living and questions the soundness of their marriage in front of them.

While the audience can see John Givings as initially crazy, as the film goes on, he actually starts to make the most sense out of anyone in the film. To The Wheelers, their other neighbors, the Campbells, are what they would aspire to be as the perfect suburban couple. They are a friendly couple, content with their lives, and seemingly in love with each other. However, as we go through the film, we realize that each couple: the Wheelers, the Givings, and even the Campbells are putting on a mask.

Out of the three couples in this film, we do spend the most time with the Wheelers who it seems were never truly meant through each other. They may have connected initially but they seem to us as two very different people. April is very footloose, wanting to enjoy life, and experience the world while Frank is content with who he is, what his career will be, and his contentedness with being a father. They are also not quite settled in their livelihoods when we meet as April is struggling to gain traction as an Actress and Frank is bored stiff at his sales job. Instead of supporting each other through the tough times, it remains a point of contention that either person hasn’t succeeded as much as they would like. While it seems that they are both not content with living in the suburbs or being married, they also have their two children to think about.

Because they are married and have children, it’s nearly impossible for them to uproot their lives as April suggests. A running theme throughout the film is their desire to move elsewhere including Paris which April endorses immediately yet Frank sees as being unrealistic. When you have people who depend on you, bills to pay, and jobs that get in the way, it’s hard to move anywhere including overseas. Their collective boredom at living in the suburbs starts to manifest itself elsewhere as they start to get bored with each other by seeking out extramarital affairs, excessive drinking, smoking, etc. to dull their pain. Instead of trying to work out their marriage problems or seek ways to better their lives separately, they drag each other through the mud with shouting matches and other more extreme actions.

While Paris is an escape for the two of them from their jobs, their repetitive jobs, and their monotonous suburban lifestyle, it’s clearer that they want to escape and get away from each other. As John Lennon famously stated, “Life is while happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Frank and April Wheeler never truly accept that their lives are not truly their own and they do have to make compromises when it comes to money, children, lifestyle, etc. When they plan to actually move to Paris, April gets pregnant again and Frank is offered a lucrative promotion at his sales job. Instead of accepting their new reality together, they lash out at each other and cause a lot of pain and suffering in the process.

You can see from the film that Frank and April Wheeler were not compatible people in terms of their relationship or marriage. As April bluntly opines to Frank during one of their fights, “You were just some guy that made me laugh at a party once.” It becomes clear to the audience that they would be happier living separate lives with Frank living as a successful salesman at his father’s former company in New York City while April tries to make it on her own as an actress working in Paris or Los Angeles. Both of them are not cut out for the married, suburban lifestyle but they are also equally not cut out for each other. They can use the suburbs, their children, their job situations as excuses but at the heart of the issue is their flawed relationship.

American society in the 1950’s helped to put a lot of pressure on young couples like the Wheeler’s to get married, have children, and then move to the suburbs where it’s safe and secure. However, it’s clear that this type of lifestyle is not for everyone. Some people are not meant to be married or to have children. Others are meant to live in cities or travel for their work. I can imagine that the cultural attitude in the 1950’s shunned this kind of critical thinking and encouraged a more conformist lifestyle that stifled people’s personal hopes, wants, and ambitions. You could say that the following decade, the 1960’s, changed American life forever in its expectations of people and how they could and should live their lives.

In closing, this film is a realistic and sobering look at how relationships and marriages can fail sometimes and that it can be very painful to live a life that’s not in line with your personal wants and needs.

‘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.’

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