Road To Perdition (Mendes, 2002)

"With Road to Perdition, you could virtually take every frame of his (Conrad Hall's) work and blow it up and hang it over your fireplace. It was like Rembrandt at work."
- Producer, Robert Zanuck (Quoted in Horn, 2003)

Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, shot by Conrad Hall
Thanks to Sam Mendes' direction and the exquisite cinematography from the legendary Conrad Hall, Road To Perdition (Mendes, 2002) is a film that is rich in memorable thematic imagery. Set during 1930s Chicago, it depicts the journey of a young boy (Michael Jr, played by Tyler Hoechlin) and his father Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) who are both forced to flee their home and go on the run after Jr witnesses a shooting carried out by his father. Sullivan's boss is the mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman), whose own son Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) is incompetent, brash, violent and uses the situation as an excuse to murder Michael's wife and youngest son. Sullivan vows revenge on the two of them and wanting to keep his last remaining child safe, travels to Perdition where he is shadowed all the way by hired killer Maguire (Jude Law).

"Whatever the story is trying to say to the audience dictates to me the mood I should use to reach that audience. In this case, the film is about a father who's trying to raise his son so that the boy won't grow up to be like him. It's a powerful story... it has a serious message." - Conrad Hall (Quoted in Zone, 2002)


Sam Mendes and Conrad hall behind the scenes of Road to Perdition
Sam Mendes and Conrad Hall

With Road to Perdition, Mendes and Hall wanted to try and avoid some of the clich├ęs that were applicable to the gangster genre, both narratively and aesthetically. With such a talented DoP at his side, Mendes knew he could tell the story, which was adapted from a graphic novel, visually rather than aurally: "The movies that influenced me were movies that told their stories through pictures more than words... there was much more dialogue in the movie when we shot it and I took it out later" (Directors' Commentary, 2002). The great strength of Road to Perdition is the storytelling as told through this sublime imagery, which works to underpin the two main subjects explored by the film.

You were more like me

"Unlike other gangster films, it wasn't about explosions. It was about a family, but not even in the sense of Mafia family, it was really just about family and relationships." - Paul Newman (Quoted in Fischer, 2002)


Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition

The driving theme that characterises Road to Perdition is that of the relationship between father and son. It's evident from the opening minutes that not only is Michael Jr. unable to get close to his father emotionally, but also that the most meaningful 'father/son' relationship present here is the one between Sullivan and his surrogate father Rooney, much to the chagrin of the bitterly jealous Connor. Given that this is Michael Jr.'s story, Mendes and Hall made sure that we view the world of Road to Perdition largely through the eyes of this child, which means that we too are distanced from Sullivan in the early minutes of the film. Everything from the framing to the blocking of our two main characters serves to heighten this disconnect between them: "The boy has no access to his father, therefore the film must have no access to him" (Directors' Commentary, 2002), Mendes has said. 

Sam Mendes points out in the excellent directors' commentary that, because of Hanks' star appeal many people watching the picture would feel like they already knew his character before the picture started. It was therefore necessary to create a sense of mystery around our anti-hero in order to convey this separation that exists between him and his son, as well as us. This is achieved most obviously though composition, wherein Michael Jr. is often seen looking at his father at an obscured distance through doorways in their deliberately oversized house. Even when they share the same frame, such as when the two kneel down to pray during the wake scene, they are captured in a profile shot; an alternative to a front-facing view which is a much less intimate, far more detached way of viewing characters within in film. Such a method is used again moments later as Michael Jr. watches a piano duet between his father and Rooney. Jr. himself is given little regard here as the depth of field puts him within the frame looking on, but out of focus as the attention is given to the two men in the foreground who, at this stage, are the ones with the meaningful connection. Hall said that he always tried to frame his characters in the "appropriate emotional context" (Quoted in Zone, 2002) and the first 20 minutes do a superb job of establishing what relationships are severed and what ones are forged by a deep bond, even without words. 

Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in Road to Perdition

"The most fascinating and strongest bond in this movie happens between non-blood. Who are the biggest strangers in the movie? The actual blood father and son who travel in this car together." - Tom Hanks (Quoted in Hollywood.com interview, 2002)

Once they are forced to flee their home, Mendes shows us that the grand status and respect that Sullivan once commanded and that is emphasised throughout the first half hour has now been instantly extinguished. Now homeless and with no power or money to their name, Sullivan and Michael Jr. are lost, ineffectual individuals with an uncertain future. Upon their arrival in downtown Chicago they are briefly captured walking along a pavement with the public; this telephoto shot does nothing to distinguish them from the crowd. No longer is Sullivan a feared member of an organised crime group, but simply another face in a sea of people. Paradoxically, Mendes and Hall also utilise empty, deep space devoid of other people in the wide sweeping shot of their car driving down an empty highway in the scene prior, in order to further emphasise their isolation even in a wildly different setting. Sullivan is also dwarfed by the production design in Chicago when on his is way to attempt to negotiate a deal with Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), as he walks through the Lexington Hotel, the enormous architecture around him serves to belittle his stature and sense of worth. The editor (Jill Bilcock) crosscuts this action with a traumatised Michael Jr. waiting in a crowded reading room with hundreds of strangers surrounding him. This is the first instance in the film where we get the impression that Sullivan and his son are finally equals in that they are both outcasts, starting to realise that they have no one but each other whether they like it or not. 

"A sense of their isolation, solitariness and loneliness amongst all those people was something that I was looking for." - Sam Mendes (Directors' commentary, 2002)

Road to Perdition directed by Sam Mendes telephoto shot

The moment when Michael Jr.'s relationship with his father truly changes is in the conversation following the diner scene with Maguire. After escaping the hitman, the two of them argue in an empty field - a scene which is punctuated by one of the few hand held camera shots of the whole film. After this, Michael explains to his son how he won't be able to escape their predicament without the two of them working together. It is from this point on when their affection for each other starts to truly show itself. We get to see the two of them being literally brought together as they now both occupy front seats of the car, negating the need for Sullivan to turn around or look at his son though the rear view mirror (another way in which Road to Perdition demonstrates their inability to communicate with one another in the first hour). After this, a fluid and seamless lateral tracking shot shows us the progression of Michael Jr. gradually getting to grips with driving and lending a vital hand when his father starts to rob dirty money from banks. The left to right camera movement of this sequence is a extremely significant here, since it is a reverse of the film's opening, where we see Michael Jr. riding his bike through the snowy, crowded streets of Chicago from right to left. The former method of movement is a standard, traditional way of showing a character traveling, whereas the right-left substitute is a much less commonly used alternative which feels somewhat unnatural. Mendes states that its use during the opening seconds reflects Michael Jr.'s rebellious nature and independent personality as he bikes around the streets in his own private world against everyone else. This rightward movement later on shows that he is no longer alone, culminating in the below shot of him and his father together in a restaurant, solidifying their new found admiration and affection for one another. 

'Because the eye tends to read a picture from left to right, physical movement in this direction seems psychologically natural, whereas movement from the right to left often seems inexplicably tense and uncomfortable. The sensitive filmmaker exploits these psychological phenomena to reinforce the dramatic ideas.' (Giannetti, 2001: 99)

Character progression in Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition

Once our two main figures are finally free from the clutches of Rooney's organisation, we get a short but perfectly realised moment of reflection and relief. Here Mendes exploits the existence of the negative space to the left at first, lingering on it in order to heighten Michael Jr.'s feeling of emptiness at the prospect of his father never returning after going on his suicide mission to kill Connor and Rooney. Sam Mendes actually states that because of time constraints, he was unable to cut to a close of up Michael Jr. here, which was something that he regretted not being able to do, personally however I believe this moment to be much more effective as it is than it would have been with an extra cut. By preserving the original framing throughout this moment, we understand how much of a void Sullivan is filling in his son's life when he walks into the area of the frame that was previously empty. The unbalanced composition initially achieved in this static shot engages the audience with the absence of the father figure on the left, resulting in a powerful image that Hall believed symmetrical composition wasn't always able to achieve: "If things are off centred compositionally, it's probably producing an emotional effect that a balanced composition is not achieving" (Quoted in Schaefer, Salvato, 1984: 169). Therefore, when the lighting from the doorway illuminates the left of the frame as Sullivan finally comes into view, we get a more balanced composition to reflect the return to stability that his return symbolises. This moment feels somewhat reminiscent of the famous reunion scene in The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946), specifically when Al (Frederic March) is reunited with his wife in sequence that also takes place in a hallway. Just as Wyler plays on our sense of anticipation as we wait for Milly (Myrna Loy) to emerge into the background of the frame to set eyes upon her husband, Mendes does the same here as we wait for Sullivan to walk back into his son's life, and for Michael Jr. to look up and realise who it is that has just returned. Much like Wyler, Mendes understands that no words are needed from our characters here, because we know the significance that this moment holds for the two of them.

Conrad Hall composition Road to Perdition

While the development of their relationship is largely told visually, this is not to say that the script doesn't also compliment this journey. At the beginning of the picture, Michael Jr. addresses his father in the same formal manner that a student might address a teacher, using strict terms such as 'Sir' in the rare instances where the two even speak to one another. Once Michael Jr. is forced to save the life of his father following a gunshot wound, the two of them seek refuge on a farm where he nurses him back to health. Here, Michael Jr. sees his father in a state that he has never before witnessed: vulnerable and defenceless (at one point, the two of them are captured together through the frame of a door, bathed a warm light as Michael Jr. feeds his father soup, a reversal of the numerous shots in the opening minutes where Sullivan is partially obscured from view by doorways). This leads to one of the farm owners telling Sullivan how much she has noticed that his son dotes on him, to which Sullivan seems to express surprise at. His reaction is a revealing insight into the reasons why he kept an emotional distance from his son for so long, which is summed up by this exchange:

Michael Jr.: Did you like Peter more than me? 
Sullivan: No. No, Michael. I loved you both the same. 
Michael Jr.: But you were... You were different with me. 
Sullivan: Was I? Well... Maybe it was because Peter was just such a sweet boy, you know? And you... You were more like me. And I didn't want you to be.

While this tender scene demonstrates how Sullivan is at times unable to express himself eloquently through words given that he is so used to showing his feelings with violence, it still serves as a turning point for the two of them. For the first time ever they finally understand why a lack of companionship characterised their relationship up to this point. In questioning Michael Jr. about his brother, Sullivan regrettably realises how little he actually knew about him, not only leading him to ask Michael Jr. about his favourite school subjects but also to revealing that there was no favouritism when came to the two of them. Instead, there was a pervading fear that his eldest son was going down the same doomed path as his father. 

None of us will see Heaven

"It's a story that begins as simple revenge story, but it changes its meaning halfway though, it ceases to be about revenge but instead about preserving and saving the one thing that is good in his [Michael Sullivan's] life, and that's his child." - Sam Mendes (Directors' commentary, 2002)

The themes of Heaven and Hell in Road to Perdition

Although Perdition it the name of the place that Michael and his son are trying to reach, it is of course another word for an eternal punishment after death. Besides the three main relationships it's the religious undertones that constitute not just the second main theme of the film but also the motivations of the characters. Sullivan's ultimate wish is to ensure that his son will see heaven, something that he accepted long ago will never happen to himself. From the opening seconds of the picture it is established that the entire film is a flashback told from Michael Jr's perspective, which in the words of Mendes makes it a movie that is "populated entirely by ghosts" (Directors' commentary, 2002), given that almost all of the characters will be dead by the closing credits. 

In order to give the picture these etherial characteristics, diegetic sound is often silenced in favour of Thomas Newman's music. For instance, despite Road to Perdition being a road movie of sorts, we rarely actually hear the noise of Sullivan's car. Instead, Mendes wanted to give the impression that the automobile was "floating" (Directors' commentary, 2002) during the driving scenes, which lends a ghostly quality to the entire picture. In the most celebrated scene of the film where Rooney's henchmen are gunned down one by one by his surrogate son, the inaudible bullet shots and rainfall reinforce the relationship between 'the silence of the world and the impending nothingness of death' (Link, 2007: 71). The idea that these individuals did not hear their own death coming is at odds with Rooney, who accepts and resigns himself to the fact that his life is now over once Sullivan approaches him. Here, the diegetic sound reappears as he speaks his last words, putting up no fight as he is extinguished in a barrage of thundering Tommy Gun fire. 

Despite its genre which is obviously synonymous with bloodshed, the violence within Road to Perdition is actually remarkably muted, that is to say that despite the large death count, very few of them are actually shown on camera (Hall didn't like gratuitous gore in film). It goes to show how far removed Sullivan, Maguire and Connor are from the emotional ramifications of murder; to them it is a task like any other, one that that they are utterly desensitised to at this point in their lives. The fact that we rarely see the bodies of those left in their wake withholds our chances of seeing the consequences of violence upon the victims themselves. Instead, we see how bloodshed affects those who perpetrate it. By denying us a glimpse of the deceased, we are almost put in the shoes of our anti hero Sullivan, who must also overlook and ignore the emotional results of his violent work in order to be an effective employer to Rooney. When we do see it in slow motion detail such as during the warehouse scene, we are viewing a murder through the eyes of Michael Jr.; an innocent who is seeing someone getting killed for the first time in his life, and who hasn't lost his humanity like others have. Unlike the adults in his life, Michael Jr. isn't a killer, nor will he become one in the future. Road to Perdition is not just about those who commit murder, but also those who witness it, and how their reaction to it has an impact on them for the rest of their lives. 

"[What's] important in this story is what the violence does to the person who pulls the trigger, and what it has done to them over the years, how it has gradually corroded them. It has rotted their insides." - Sam Mendes (Quoted in Lyman, 2002)

Heaven motifs in Road to Perdition

Motifs of heaven and hell crop up several times throughout Road to Perdition. Despite having accepted his ultimate fate, Sullivan believes he can find some kind of redemption though his son, not only by protecting him but also by ensuring that he doesn't follow in his footsteps (it's hard to ignore the repeated images of the heaven-like beams of light shining through windows - a persistent reminder of what Sullivan's goal is for his son). The consequences of the route that Sullivan has chosen to take in his life are symbolised in the scene when he goes to collect a debt from from a speakeasy. As he walks though several rooms, each illuminated in a different colour and each harbouring a different illicit activity, Mendes has said that each one is made to represent a different circle of hell and to give the impression that with each step he takes, Sullivan is moving further from the sanctity of the outside word. However, once his goal and purpose changes, Mendes uses the environment to demonstrate how some of Sullivan's humanity has slowly crept back into his personality, despite the dire line of work that he is embroiled in. Set over a period of several months, we see a gradual seasonal shift throughout the picture. As winter turns to spring and the bitingly freezing surroundings fade to give way to a more warming and comforting climate on the beach, Sullivan is no longer the cold and detached stranger to his son that he was a few months ago. Even his casual, unshaven and somewhat scruffy appearance in this scene contributes to this feeling of him no longer being an elusive figure, but instead simply a flawed and more relatable human being. 

"Everything is linked in some way to to tell the story of the gradual humanising of its main character.” - Sam Mendes (Directors' commentary, 2002)
          
In Cold Blood and Road to Perdition shot by Conrad Hall
In Cold Blood and Road to Perdition
Road to Perdition has much in common with In Cold Blood (Brooks, 1967) which Conrad Hall also shot. Structurally they are quite similar since they are (in simple terms) about two people on the run. Crime and the ideas of guilt and redemption also permeate throughout the two works and each has a set of reprehensible characters. Although this picture was in black and white you can see the way that he employed low key lighting to establish  contrasting, silhouetted figures against the light which bounces off the rain soaked floor onto the coats, fedoras and umbrellas of those within the frame. Given that he thought Road to Perdition would have been "wonderful" (Quoted in Curell, 2003) to have shot in black and white, Hall understood how integral it would be to use lighting and shadows to enhance the narrative, given that the picture is largely monochromatic until its last moments. The shadows which are cast upon many of the adult characters enhances their two-sided, contradictory nature of being ruthless killers who still follow religious paths and harbour intense love for the few individuals in their lives. Water is a motif that is commonly associate with Sam Mendes' work, like American Beauty it is something that crops up in various forms when death is present. The reason for this is that he believed water to be an "uncontrollable" (Quoted in Schwartz, 2002) element of nature, much like death itself. He therefore uses water to precede or symbolise death within the film at several points:
  • The melting ice by the coffin at the wake. 
  • When Michael Jr. witnesses the murder at the warehouse.
  • The massacre of Rooney and his henchmen. 
  • The murder of Connor and Michael's wife & son are committed in a bathroom with a running bath. 
  • Before Sullivan is killed at the end there is no music or dialogue, instead just the sound of the waves as he looks at the sea.

Conrad Hall used rain to create an incredibly famous shot in In Cold Blood, albeit unintentionally. Before the scene in which Perry (Robert Blake) is being sent to the gallows, the positioning of his character makes it so the water streaming down from the windows was projected onto his face, making it look like the hardened criminal was shedding tears before his execution. This moment is most reminiscent of the section in which Sullivan is preparing his Tommy Gun before the final confrontation; with the raindrops and lighting resulting in an identical effect but this time upon the walls of the room (above). Mendes has also spoken of the significance of Sullivan's case which holds his rifle, and how it's treated in much the same casual way that a businessman might treat his briefcase, to reflect the notion that it's simply a tool needed for his employment. Hall stated that he loved to work with symbolism, because it was something that was "very strong visually" (Quoted in Zone, 2002). Not only does this utilisation of the weather result in many aesthetically interesting shots, it also creates an ever-present sense of foreboding in the narrative and a dark mystique to the characters who are often concealed by these downpours. Another scene in the 1967 picture echoed here is when the inmates of the prison look down at the forecourt that holds the gallows, in much the same way that the inhabitants of the nearby apartment buildings gaze upon the massacre of Rooney and his henchman below. These voyeuristic shots of silhouetted individuals viewing death from above as if they are passing judgement on what they are seeing establishes the idea that the brutality perpetrated by our main figures is not without witnesses and therefore not without consequences. 


Conrad Hall would deservedly win an Oscar for his work on Road To Perdition and it's not hard to see why. Unfortunately this would be his last ever picture as it was awarded posthumously following his passing in 2003, but the film stands as a great last testament to his phenomenal work as a cinematographer.


References

American Film Institute. 'Sam Mendes on the Seasonal Imagery of Road to Perdition'. Youtube. [Video File] Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02dUqPDf-Ag

Curell, R. 2003. 'Adjust Your Sets: Road to Perdition More Visually Appealing in Black and White'. Iowa State Daily. [Online] Available here: https://www.iowastatedaily.com/adjust-your-sets-road-to-perdition-more-visually-appealing-in-black-and-white/article_70ac5778-bfa8-5af4-9d1a-2fa3761ae182.html

Fischer, P. 2002. 'Paul Newman's Road To Glory'. Film Monthly. [Online] Available here: http://www.filmmonthly.com/Profiles/Articles/PNewman/PNewman.html 

Giannetti, L. 2001. Understanding Movies. New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Hollywood.com. 2002. 'Road to Perdition: Tom Hanks Interview'. Hollywood.com. [Online] Available here: http://www.hollywood.com/general/road-to-perdition-tom-hanks-interview-57164104/ 

Horn, J. 2003. 'Conrad Hall, 76; Cinematographer Won Oscars for Butch Cassidy and Beauty'. Los Angeles Times. [Online] Available here: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-jan-06-me-hall6-story.html

Link, S. 2007. 'Going Gently: Contemplating Silences and Cinematic Death'. In Losseff, N & Doctor, J (eds). Silence, Music, Silent Music. York: University of York. pp.69-87

Lyman, R. 2002. 'So, as Paul said to Tom'. The Guardian. [Online] Available here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/sep/15/features.review

Mendes, S. 2002. Road to Perdition commentary by Sam Mendes. Dreamworks Pictures & 20th Century Fox.

Pizzello, S. 2003. 'In Memoriam: Conrad L. Hall, ASC (1926-2003)'. The American Society of Cinematographers. [Online] Available here: https://theasc.com/news/in-memoriam-conrad-l-hall-asc-1926-2003

Richards, E. 2010. 'The Cinematography of Road to Perdition'. Evan Richards.com. [Online] Available here: http://evanerichards.com/2010/541

Schaefer, D & Salvato, L. 1984. Masters of Light: Conversations Contemporary Cinematographers. Los Angeles: University of California Press

Schwartz, D. 2002. 'A Pinewood Dialogue with Sam Mendes'. Museum of the Moving Image [Online] Available here: http://www.movingimagesource.us/files/dialogues/2/11574_programs_transcript_html_237.html

Teofilo, A. 2002. 'On the Road to Perdition: Old Blue Eyes, an interview with Paul Newman'. Quick Stop Entertainment. [Online] Available here: https://web.archive.org/web/20120722023144/http://www.asitecalledfred.com/perdition/7.html

Teofilo, A. 2002. 'On the Road to Perdition: The Legend and the Prodigy'. Quick Stop Entertainment. [Online] Available here: https://web.archive.org/web/20120722023122/http://www.asitecalledfred.com/perdition/3.html 

Zone, R. 2002. 'Emotional Triggers: Road to Perdition, a Depression-era drama about a conflicted hit man, reteams Conrad L. Hall, ASC with director Sam Mendes'. American Cinematographer. [Online] Available here: https://theasc.com/magazine/aug02/perdition/index.html

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