The online mien of Benjamin Nowicki

Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition
Credited as: Set Dressing Coordinator
Set Decorator: Nancy Haigh

Notes: A review I wrote after attending the premiere:

Dateline Chicago
Director Sam Mendes, addressing the full house, commented, “This is the most magnificent theater I have ever seen.” He was of course referring to the historic Chicago Theater, “Wonder Theater of the World”. The phrase was coined by the Balaban & Katz theater chain, for whom the theater was built in 1921 at a cost of over 4 million dollars. The theater was restored in 1986 at a cost of 25 million dollars. The exterior is an off-white terra cotta decorated with neo-Baroque designs. The arch above the marquee is patterned after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The current marquee was installed in 1949 and is the third one that has been used on the building. The “Chicago” sign is original. The theater seats 3,800 and the lobby is based on Francois Mansart’s Chapelle Royale at Versailles.

The Chicago Theater was built at a time when the building was just as important as the movie the patrons were going to see. On Tuesday, this was again the case. The period drama, starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, premiered with considerable fanfare. The event, which was closed to the public, featured a red carpet and all the flashbulbs of a Hollywood premiere.

The dark and intense film opens with a lone figure standing on the shores of Lake Michigan, with the unearthly sounds of small waves sifting through the sands. That’s how Road to Perdition works, when it works. It washes over you as a dreamlike allegory that speaks to sadness, loss, pain, sacrifice, death, and ultimately redemption. This is not a film you will resolve immediately after viewing. There will be those who love it or hate it; it is not for an unsophisticated palate. There are moments of pure cinema, that reflect a director’s vision who understands the language of cinema and craftspeople working at the height of their power. As a fierce proponent of digital film making, I have to admit that this movie could only exist on film. A story sculpted from shadows, it is dark… literally. Director of Photography Conrad Hall masterfully works at the very margins of the film stock’s characteristic curve. Long stretches of the film contain 60 percent or more of a black screen. But these shadows are pregnant with meaning; in them hide a pervasive sense of dread and melancholy. The same dispiritedness lives on the face of the anti-hero Tom Hanks, who is most powerful when his eyes express the state of his heart. An overall understated performance, not so much as a flesh and blood character we like or dislike, but rather as an idea, a suggestion, and it works in the context of a parable. Gloom is reflected also in the Midwestern winter with its long shadows, crystalline clouds and cold air that burns in the lungs when filled with it. Barren fields with broken corn stalks, crumbling factories, sterile homes (the Rooney mansion almost plays like a funeral home in the wake scene), the twisted branches of dormant trees and the desperation on the faces of the dispossessed people provide the canvas. It is not light entertainment. The film’s darkness obscures the lines between the pious and the depraved, virtue and vice, and reminds us there is only gray when applied to human nature. It is a descent into Purgatory, and there can be no doubt of the outcome.

The figure on the beach is Michael Sullivan, played by Tyler Hoechlin, son of the older Michael Sullivan played by Tom Hanks. The story revolves around the father and son and the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves, circumstances that the elder Sullivan has visited upon his family but does not have the capacity to undo, any more than a soul’s chance of escaping from hell. Only Perdition’s hell is all too real. Michael Sullivan is a small town mobster’s enforcer; the mobster, John Rooney, is played by Paul Newman. Sullivan is the son Rooney never had. Trouble is, Rooney has a son. Connor Rooney, played by Daniel Craig, is a short-fused spoiled brat, the same age as Sullivan, who rots on the vine of privilege and freedom from want. The story begins at a wake in the Rooney mansion. The brother of the deceased crosses a line, and Connor and Sullivan are forced to pay him a visit, just to “talk.” Having hidden his “work” from his children, Sullivan sparks the curiosity of his eldest son Michael, who hides in the car before Sullivan goes for his “talk.” Michael witnesses the results of the “talk,” and we begin our descent. This is also when the story becomes less a narrative and more a parable. The story becomes not a question of how it will end, but rather what choices will Sullivan make before the inevitable ending.
Calvino’s speakeasy stands as the perfect argument against virtual sets. I must admit I was awestruck when I saw it for the first time. I was even a little giddy, maybe, seeing one of the sets for the first time on the show – so much so that I forgot a flashlight. Lit only by the light of a flashlight, provided by a teamster, it seemed as though I was Howard Carter discovering the tomb of Tutankhamen. Here was a slice of the history of my city perfectly preserved: the pool tables, a small stage, the velvet, and the earthy smell of oak barrels stained with bourbon which were stacked two high. Quite intoxicating.

We descend through Calvino’s in a magnificently conceived tracking shot. It is here that we begin to peel back the layers. First the outside, with a bridge over the South branch of the Chicago River, covered in snow. Cold. The subterranean entrance, signifying a descent into a sort of hell of crime and licentiousness. The first indoor layer is the pool hall, lit in cool blue, with shadowy figures stumbling through into darkness. Cold again, with hard edges and strong lines. Then we brush past a curtain into the red layer (a visually jarring event), soft edges and surfaces with a hint of flesh and cheap perfume, signifying a further descent. Then the center, Calvino’s office, heavy with the scent of cigar smoke and just a hint of the whiskey outside. Here sits a red-eyed and messy Calvino who reveals the betrayal and provides the turning point in the story, a scene wisely entrusted to Set Decorator Nancy Haigh and Production Designer Dennis Gassner, who do not disappoint.

From here the film becomes a road film with Sullivan and Michael on the run, exacting revenge, and hiding from a ruthless killer played by Jude Law; I won’t tell you much about him so nothing is spoiled. Much of the second act rings false, however. Attempts at comic relief were less than genuine and dragged us back to the narrative, away from the broad mythic ideas of the story. I also felt the score failed at times. Too contemporary, or too much like American Beauty?

At the epiphany we see Michael Sullivan being looked down upon in the rain, being judged by nameless faceless people, safe in their insular rooms, then quick cuts to Sullivan, soaked in the blackness. It is here that we recognize the depths of Sullivan’s evil, and he makes no attempt to run from it. Knowing this, we are set up for the ending. A new beginning?

Early adaptations of the script had this scene as a sort of violent revenge orgy; it shook me when I read it. Those early drafts of the script mirror the base and sensational graphic novel by Max Allen Collins who, while hitting on an extra from the brothel scene at the screening, was heard to say, “I wanted a Jon Woo movie; instead they made the Godfather,” repeating his quote from this month’s “Book” magazine interview. That tells you a little about where he was coming from. Hats off to the filmmakers, who could have gone down that “road,” but provided fans of cinema a gem to share and discuss.

Plot Outline: A hitman makes things personal after his wife and son are murdered.
Directed by:
Sam Mendes

Cast overview:
Tom Hanks …. Michael Sullivan
Tyler Hoechlin …. Michael Sullivan Jr.
Paul Newman …. John Rooney
Jude Law …. Maguire, aka ‘The Reporter’
Anthony LaPaglia …. Al Capone
Daniel Craig (I) …. Connor Rooney
Stanley Tucci …. Frank Nitti
Jennifer Jason Leigh …. Wife