Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Road to Perdition

Nathaniel is hosting his weekly Hit Me With Your Best Shot series wherein we extract our favourite shot from a film under discussion. This week we take it back to the 2003 Oscar winner for Best Cinematography, Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition.

Nathaniel himself said it best when he described the film as being “best shot-y” and good lord is it ever. Not that this makes it a poor film, because even as I don’t love the film wholeheartedly it certainly is a good film – and it is so “best shot-y”, I’ve got lots of, err, shots to talk about.

(Random aside: I saw it three weeks ago – after a few years –before realising it was a future entry in the best-shot annals, I had my firm issues with its purposefulness, then. I rewatched it again on Tuesday last and still discerned the same purposefulness but liked it more. Does it all mean I’m a fickle movie-watcher?)

Part gangster-drama, part (maybe infinitesimally, but still a part) bildungsroman, part parent-child drama – the emotion crux of the film is, doubtlessly, meant to be the relationship between Michael Sullivan Sr. and his son Michael Sullivan Jr. I’m generally cool on Hanks as an actor, even in especially in his Oscar winning turns but even as he’s playing against-type as the especially taciturn Sullivan, here, I’m much more moved by the machinations of his Michael and the characterisation of said character than I am, usually.

One of my considerations for best shot was this one below, somewhere in middle of second act.
Considering that the build-up towards the father/son on the road takes about forty minutes it’s something of a difficulty for Mendes and Hanks to make the arc ring with as much emotion as it necessitates. But it ends up working just because Hanks doesn’t do too much and because he’s aided by a good performance from Hoechlin. Still, this arc doesn’t manage to emerge as my favourite strand of the film because even as I hope that the Sullivans’ emerge unscathed from the battle they’re headed into I’m continuously more interested in the antics of the Jude Law’s Harlen Maguire.

So much of the cinematography in the film seems as if it’s asking you to love it, but I wouldn’t be contrarian just for contrarian just for contrarian’s sake – it’s beautiful to watch. Take for example this gorgeous shot (which wins laurels for being my favourite pretty shot).
As Law has confessed, regarding Harlen, “He gets so jaded from exposure to this world; he steps over the line from being storyteller to being storymaker.” And, what works best about the way that the storytelling unfolds in Road to Perdition are the moments of subtle, but still distinct, perversion. That shot above is aesthetically pretty, but it’s still a shot of a murder and the dun colours of it all don’t add any buoyancy to it, rightfully so. Contrast this with another pretty shot.
No longer dun, but still antiseptic and still technically pretty while still avoiding any element of beautifying the sordid.

Go below the jump to see my two favourite shots, and an extra one just for fun...

Which leads me to my two favourite shots. What permeates throughout the entire of Road to Perdition is the way that the entire film is permeated with violence. The adage goes, “Violence begets violence.” And it’s that same violent nucleus with holds all the strands of the film together. The closing rainy shootout is the true climax, but it’s the exchange of bullets in the hotel which I remember foremost and this particular image always sticks with me.
It’s not even essential to know that the hand belongs to Harlen, it’s just that concept of an outstretched hand with a cocked gun represents one of the most significant aspects of the film. It’s almost as if without seeing the face the hand is just there hovering, without a face, but inductive of that nameless violence which brings me to my true favourite shot – unsubtle, though it may be.
The bloodied hand. This shot thrills me for the visual as well as the narrative implications. Harlen has been shot in the eye and wipes his face, then looks down at the blood. The concept of bloodied hand is a universal indication of culpability, and Harlen – like all the adult males in the film – is existing with severely bloody hands. What makes this shot even more fascinating to me, though, is the fact that the blood on his hands at the moment is his own blood. When you cock a gun and take a shot they person you’re destroying is not only the ostensible victim, but you’re destroying yourself, too. It’s the sort of reflexive nature of violence which the entire film sums up to wonderfully with its title, and even if that closing monologue is just a bit too clunky, the bloodied hands give us so many reasons why Michael Sullivan Jr. vows to never pick up a gun again. So, succinctly put, when you raise a gun you get your own blood on your hands. That could very well be a working thesis for Road to Perdition.

(And, I just have to include this shot below - consider it my favourite tongue-in-cheek shot, although I don't know if it's inadvertent.)
 Jude's expression, and the name of the diner make for an interesting combination.
Nathaniel shall post the complete list of posts later tonight. What do you think of Road to Perdition.


Cinesnatch said...

I love the "blood on hands" shot and the "eat" one as well. Those were the two memorable ones I would have chosen from if I had gone the Maguire route (which was hard not to do).


really like your choice. As much as I'm not a crime drama person I actually think the film should be MORE dangerous and violent (it's *too* pretty) so i admire this choice.

Tim said...

The other thing I really love about your best shot is all that thick negative space to the right - also not subtle, that darkness is literally encroaching on the frame.

Building on what Nathaniel said, it's a problem that even the bloodiest shots are, in and of themselves, pretty (like your runner-up, that's just gorgeous).

Colin Biggs said...

One of the most disturbing shots I've ever seen is when Jude Law is snapping a picture of a fatally wounded Hanks. Mendes chilled me to the bone with that one.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

cinesnatch maguire is so interesting, isn't he? so glad he's getting some good mentions for this series.

nathaniel YUP. it's weird how harlen feels like the only, truly dangerous person in the entire film. which is so weird because i'm usually all up on pretty-prettiness, but it's vaguely odd in some respects here how it's so lacking in true violence.

and this, as tim astutely puts it, is a problem in itself. i'm noticing how pretty the blood spatters look on the curtains for example.

(good call on the encroaching darkness there, tim very obvious but so much meaning.)

colin i completely agree with you there. the only reason that particular shot isn't there is because i felt i was already talking too much. VERY disturbing.

ruth said...

Great pick from a most excellent film! That bloodied hands, oh my! Before I saw the film, I was so intrigued by what happened to Jude's face... so when I saw this scene, I was like WOW!

Disturbing is how I'd describe his role in this film. Such a departure from his previous stuff, certainly one of Jude's best I think.

Paolo said...

That shot reminds me of the one with Emily Watson's character in The Proposition, which makes sense since both characters have seen violence so up close within their lives. And those kind of shots allow the audience to have the same emotional POV as the character.