This week’s choice for Nathaniel’s Best Shot series, ROAD TO PERDITION, is undeserving of my tardiness but here it goes. ROAD TO PERDITION is probably my favourite Sam Mendes film because it’s one with the least conflictophiliac historionics, if my newly coined word makes sense. It doesn’t have Kevin Spacey, Jake Gylenhaal or Leonardo di Caprio yelling at their co-stars (AWAY WE GO is up for eventual investigation), and misanthropy never ages well for me. Sure there’s a lot of conflict in this movie too. There’s a scene with Paul Newman‘s character, mob lord John Rooney beating this hit out of his son Connor (Daniel Craig) that can put the latter half of Liam Neeson’s career to shame. But the characters’ destination might be perilous but it’s a smooth ride to get there or in other words, their damnation is certain but it comes as a smoulder instead of a sadistic arsonist.
There are also white picket fences in AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, as well as the glaring deserts in JARHEAD. ROAD TO PERDITION is on the opposite side of the spectrum, evoking what would happen if Norman Rockwell carved in cozy mahogany. And its gloss and shadows, fitting for adapting a graphic novel, will have its echoes in movies today, almost a decade after this one. But it’s always a new experience watching this movie again, the colour palette more diverse, its blocking beautifully done. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall does all of this while also redefining symmetry, as cheesy as that sounds. Every group of images holds a newly discovered theme. Like this one of crowds!
This shot above is the best of the movie, an introduction to John’s grand-godson Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin). We the audience can barely see him but here he is trying to sell newspapers. Since Michael is our narrator his character transforms into a troubled adolescent. This might be too simple of a character and story arc, but this shot shows the child coexisting with the world-weary, faceless, Kollwitz-like figures. The world is already full of terrible things but his innocence makes him oblivious. He’s also biking towards them, diving inadvertently and cheerily towards damnation. And as a parting gift here’s my second favourite shot that ties in with the first, Michael waiting for his father (Tom Hanks), wading within men looking through the wanted ads during the Depression, a few seconds before he breaks down.
- Hit Me With Your Best Shot: “Road to Perdition” (thefilmexperience.net)
Jean-Pierre Melville slowly worked himself up to become a master of the cinematic frame in his heist films, culminating to Le Cercle Rouge where he attains a balance between the visual and the narrative. There are many memorable images here, like the police doing a search of rural grounds or leggy nightclub dancers but my favourite will be the one where we’re introduced to Yves Montand‘s character. A secret door opens in his bedroom and animals make their way to his bed, these reptiles and other creepy crawlies symbolic of something haunting this ex-police officer. It’s style and terror within the same scene, making its audience sweat. That or maybe I like that shade of blue.
- Reblog: NEW WAVE WEEK! Day 5: Jean-Pierre Melville (magnoliaforever.wordpress.com)
I like how Jean-Pierre Melville depicts the French urban landscape in his films, especially in Le Doulos as its characters walk under bridges, sandy dunes and landfills or patchy parks. The homes, within crowded neighborhoods or otherwise, are safe houses with stolen jewelry, money and weapons.
As if these places are where characters burrow or hide or run but never strolled on or enjoyed. And pardon the cliché but it’s the France that the tourists don’t see, a France that surprisingly seems more American, dusty and dirty.
Maurice Fuguel (Serge Reggiani), just coming out of prison, involves himself in another murder/robbery/chase scene. Then he goes to his apartment where his girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy) is staying.
When he opens a door, a shadow appears, cool in his uniform trench coat, turning out to be his best friend Silien visits and enters the movie. Silien at first seems like a secondary character until we quickly realize the actor playing him – Jean-Paul Belmondo – and at this point we’re anticipating more excitement.
Which he brings ten minutes later as he returns to the apartment, finding Therese alone. It’s disturbing to watch him brutalize her, the delivery of his threats showing either a great, risky performance or a great, risky moment within an otherwise decent performance. What feels more uncomfortable is how the movie tries to convince us that the beating is for the greater good – he forces her to give information that might save his Maurice and his friends from a heist that will definitely go bad.
The movie introduces another female character, Silien’s ex-girlfriend Fabiene (Fabienne Dali), a woman with an equally terrible past whom he’s attempting to rescue. Melville tries to show the opposites between these female characters but they are still within a limited spectrum – passive and victimized.
Silien hijacks the movie with the best intentions. Even if he’s a police informant his loyalty is with the underworld, trying to correct the wrongs. The film’s last scenes are its weakest as he explains why some of his friends had to experience arrest or murder.
Patching things up, eventually the best friends plan to move to an orchard outside the city. Silien even tries to being Fabienne along. But then the enmity between friends produces unexpected problems, the dream of finishing with their criminal life becoming a foggy dream.
- Reblog: NEW WAVE WEEK! Day 5: Jean-Pierre Melville (magnoliaforever.wordpress.com)
Mixing golden age filmmaking techniques and new Hollywood’s colourful realism, The Sting is more form conscious than director George Roy Hill’s earlier films. Meaning that this film also has enough wipes and page wipes for ten Kurosawa films. Both wipe montage overloads portray Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) getting makeovers and a new apartment. The latter montage also depicts Hooker’s new partner Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) gathering people for a con. Each of these people are like chapters in a book that we skip to see the exciting part of them performing their sleight of hand. Their mark is a gangster named Doyle Lonegan (Robert Shaw). These montages are accompanied by a ragtime score, the conflicts given a lighter mood.
There’s also a lot of running in this movie, mostly from Johnny’s part, having to leave Joliet, Illinois for Chicago to avenge the death of his former partner. He’s being chased by authorities and hitmen who have been on him since he has moved. There are guns involved and the clicking sound of Johnny’s shoes eerily makes the audience a little afraid for him. The camera follows Johnny enough for us to see Redford’s athleticism. There are also quick zoom outs from the gunmen, whether they’re on top of a subway platform or within hallways or back alleys behind a diner. Even if they’re looming they can never catch up to Johnny.
I started to understand why this won over Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers for Best Picture in 1973. There’s little quips from Johnny’s girlfriend, blaming her wasted training on her orchestra instead of her trip numbers. That could be overread as a satire on class boundaries in Depression-era America, but we can accept it as an incidental humour that’s as real because it’s delivered in little strokes. It’s a very masculine film, honestly portraying man in its different stages, from Lonegan’s bravado at the poker table to Gondorff wasting away before he and Johnny can get their acts together. There are red herrings before the winners bring out their Hollywood smiles, and most of us won’t have it any other way.
Banjo music plays during car chases when the gang of Bonnie and Clyde get away, the only soundtrack we hear in the film. The film doesn’t romanticize through diagetic music, the gang’s ups and downs portrayed through a consistent tone.
The gang drive by the countryside too quickly, or cut often towards close-ups. The film’s briskness still allow us to experience great images, slowing it down would only call attention to its Academy Award-winning cinematography too much. Images like during nighttime on highways, the only source of light are the headlights from the car. The interiors of the cars are well-lit, but outside they’re plunged into darkness, surrounded by the insufficient infrastructure, alone in their journey’s last legs.
Or when the gang visits Bonnie Parker’s (Faye Dunaway) family, the yellow earth of that country under sunny haze. The film’s most manicured moments are here, the clouds looking too light. Bonnie breaks the scene’s dreamlike essence, feeling disconnect between her, her senile mother, and her shortsighted boyfriend Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty).
The actors don’t deliver lines like those in earlier gangster films, realistically sounding like hicks instead. Most of the actors exclaim their raspy Southern accents, mostly during good times, but the dialogue’s just as energetic and quick during the film’s denouement.
The gang aren’t Robin Hood, nor am I attracted to them in the Manichean sense. They don’t seem evil, even with the cop killing, infighting and how they narcissistically take pictures of themselves. The characters behave like ones in early Godard films, impulsively childlike, dressing up and chasing their victims, toting their guns.
The film’s doesn’t view them as neither good nor evil. The newspapers portray them as curiosities instead of hunted criminals. The bankers they rob hog the camera just like the gang. A couple (one half of which is Gene Wilder) rides along even if the gang steals their car. The rural sprawl causes plurality of reactions towards the gang, equally creating both fans, onlookers or snitches.
The ‘good guys’ don’t live up to their labels, as Texas Ranger Hamer goes to Missouri hunt for the gang for bounty money instead of protecting people from his own jurisdiction, his quest for them eventually rooted on revenge and not on trying to do good.
The characters often think of the couple’s death. The farmer in the bank promised to order them flowers at their funeral, a morbid way of saying thanks. Bonnie poeticizes their martyrdom. We know how this film’s going to end but not its specifics, a few close-ups of the couple followed by a wordless shootout, without lyricism, a brutal defeat portrayed in twenty seconds.
Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Silvana (Silvana Mangano, Dino de Laurentis’ then wife) are rivals. The former is an illegal and the latter is more conventionally beautiful, supposedly naive and has a union contract. Silvana, in working an Italian convent’s rice fields – What? Those exist? – will face moral ambiguities and questions, mostly about a rival that becomes her friend once in a while.
Silvana asks Francesca about working for a rich family and for hotels. See, they’re two of a handful of woman Nonetheless, she gets fired for stealing jewellery that she provides for her sleaze of a boyfriend Walter (Vittorio Gassmann) and now she’s in this dump. Silvana is jealous that Francesca actually experienced what it’s like to serve and see riches, Francesca disagrees and is jealous of Silvana’s innocence. There are no flashbacks in this section of the film.
How very Neorealist, I suppose, of the film, to show the bitter realities of its present and not dwell on the fantasies of its glorious past. The film doesn’t idealize Italy, Silvana’s boyfriend Marco (Raf Vallone) thinking about moving to South America, even if Silvana mentions North America as a suitable place to move as well. Later on, Walter talks about jail and house crises, the most obvious political commentary in the film. Otherwise, it’s all about these four characters, trying to survive either legitimately or otherwise.
The only evidence of glamour and richness in the film is the said heavy diamond necklace that Francesca supposedly steals, causing a public scandal. It goes through a change of hands from Francesca to Silvana,the latter showing it off to remind the former of her crime. The revelation that the necklace is a fake is a metaphor but not a heavy-handed one.
I’m not sure if I can call these women tough or overdependent, I suppose they’re a bit of both. They’ll work even if it’s raining. It’s not like they’re secluded from the world by working inside a convent neither, receiving love letters from their men who for some reason know where they are. They sometimes escape from the convent and dance. Some mention finding bushes to be alone on.
The film ends, and tell one of my friends that it wasn’t so bad. He disagrees and tells me it’s a lesser Neorealist film, and the fact that it mixes the gangster and the melodrama within the style makes it a less pure example of the genre, even if it did popularize it outside Italian markets. And don’t worry about me, I have a litany of complaints about this movie as well. Like why does the poor Silvana, and sometimes Francesca, have nice, form-fitting clean clothes and hair, everyone else looking crappier and frizzier? Why are these women leaning over so beautifully as they’re supposedly working hard to plant rice in these fields? Why does everyone’s singing voices sound the same? Why is sexy jazz music playing in sad or rapey moments? Why do guys force their mouths on the women’s mouths? Why do the bad guys always have to dress like pre-Godard antiheroes?
There are great moments of filmmaking here like the dance scene, always cutting back and forth from wide shots of the dance and close-ups of the necklace, keeping it as tense as possible. Or shot contershots when Walter looks a bigger man than he should be.
The acting’s not perfect neither, but there’s something commendable about the four leads. Dowling, despite telling the sexiest abortion story in this history of cinema, has moments in a more psychologically complex character than she normally would have gotten in her Hollywood years. Or more complex than Blue Dahlia, anyway. Vallone can make a clichéd move like wipe-clapping his wrists after knocking a man out seem like an instinct. And Gassman’s campy, an adjective I refuse to give as a compliment.
The best actor here is Mangano. There has always been something vulnerable about Silvana, going after Francesca and turning the workers against her like David fighting a giant. Or going insane after finding out about a coworker’s miscarriage. Finding out that she’s been lied to, that all her fantasies about getting out rich have been squashed. She realizes so many things in the last few scenes of the film that she turns catatonic. It’s probably one of the greatest cries I’ve seen an actress do, Mangano shaking to the bone. She’s the reason the dated film stands out.
J or Josh Cody’s (James Frecheville) mother OD’s beside him. He calls maternal grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), her little, meek voice telling him to move in with her and her sons, family man Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), ‘don’t call me uncle’ Darren Cody (Luke Ford) – only two years older than J, and fast-moving shirtless Craig. These men are bank robbers. No biggie.
I assumed toughness from these men, and they do exude that on scene and through grainy footage screenshots of them sporting balaclavas and guns. What destroys their bravado is the decline of the bank robbers, as it goes in many films of the same genre. J also confides that they have fear and feel a familial dread, and looking at the brothers supports that assessment. Barry for example looks like he’s holding in a sigh before talking to the detectives staking out near his front door. Or Craig struggling while play fighting on the couch. Or Darren unable to interfere while someone murders a girl in front of him. There is a little part of me that doubts that fear because the narration technically filters our understand of the characters. However, at least it directs into looking at these men’s eyes at quiet moments within the film.
Then the big brother Andrew ‘Pope,’ (Ben Mendelsohn) pops out of hiding. Pervy and destructive even towards his family, he sets off the crucial events within the film. Pope’s to blame for making things worse – I see it, J sees it, but it’s never fully established whether the other characters do too.
In his misdeeds, the audience watches out for two characters. There’s Janine who seems complicit and J, whose estrangement from the family makes him wired differently from them. He can either be part of the fold or snitch to a detective (unrecognizable Guy Pearce). Their performances are underacted, naturalistic. Weaver as Janine surprises by ordering a hit, slyly dangling the reasons why that hit is beneficial to her henchmen while still keeping her motherly cool. Frecheville as J starts out as a silent wallflower but shines in a scene by himself and in another when he maturely wards off Janine’s empty promises of comfort.
However, what I like best about Animal Kingdom is how it treats these subjects and characters with deft and sympathy, while others could have seen them – watching game shows, smoking indoors, going at each other – as crass human beings.
- Movie review: ‘Animal Kingdom’ a wild thriller (sfgate.com)
- Dan Persons: Mighty Movie Podcast: David Michod on Animal Kingdom (huffingtonpost.com)