Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
A Depression-era mob enforcer and his son are on the run. The boy witnessed a brutal killing carried out by his father and his partner, and now a hit has been put out on their lives. While the two flee for safety, they simultaneously seek revenge for the slaying of their family and begin to acclimate to the nuances of their own distant relationship.
Watching Sam Mendes' 2002 Academy Award-winning film, 'Road to Perdition,' on Blu-ray reminds me why this technology was invented. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall's compositions are stunningly brought to life and the movie's Super 35 format translates an authentic filmic grain. Hall's work is technically precise -- loaded with details that are illuminated by the most basic of elements: light, shadow, skin tone, atmosphere.
And what is it about that rain that never seems to end? Next to Hall's muted, minimal palette -- which adds a coldness and sorrowful dimension to the movie -- the rain is unrelenting and violent. Mendes has stated that the theme of water speaks to the "uncontrollability of fate" and that "the soul of the movie is expressed in the exteriors." If the soul hangs along the outside, then the mind is revealed in Hall's interior spaces. 'Road to Perdition's' sets were built inside the mammoth Chicago Armory, giving the cinematographer complete control over the elaborately constructed lighting. The correlation between houses -- places of identity -- and the mind is something people often talk about regarding dreams. Given 'Perdition's' mythic leanings and graphic novel origin it seems only fitting to view these spaces in such a light.
Pictorially, there's another graphic novel element in this week's frame. The composition is broken into multiple other vertical frames, recalling a panel-type layout (some shots were actually pulled directly from the comic). Hall's atmospheric lighting and less is more methodology is at play here, along with a one point depth of field focus that Hall uses throughout the film. All this worked to create what the cinematographer described as "soft noir" -- something that feels intuitive, naturalistic and is nicely balanced with the high contrast, chiaroscuro visuals that are more typical of the time period.
Mendes wanted to carry that naturalistic sensibility throughout the interior spaces, which Hall achieved by something he calls "room tone." He explains, "Room tone is the light that results from light bouncing off of walls, ceilings and floors. It gives a sense of presence to what I don't want to see." What you often don't see are the cliche flourishes of Depression-era style. That sentiment is reserved for the moody internal narrative, while the visuals remain more realistic and less theatrical or stylized. Hall confirmed that sentiment stating, "The thing that makes this picture work so well is a kind of honesty ... There is no blue moonlight, no green vistas, none of that kind of stuff. The film has very carefully crafted compositions, it's meticulously cut, and it's paced very gently and slowly - all of which is good for the story."
Mendes and Hall looked at the paintings of American realist Edward Hopper for reference when constructing their shots, lighting, and to help capture the emotional pitch of a scene (I think there's a lot of Bo Bartlett -- and maybe some Andrew Wyeth -- here too). Camera operator P. Scott Sakamoto explains the camera's role in this, "We did a lot of tableau shots, wide shots that let the actors move within the frame, and we didn't move the camera much. Sam lets his actors tell the story within the frame."
Hopper's 'New York Movie' was a particularly big influence on the filmmaker, which guided him when it came to allowing space around the characters, stressing the importance of where your eye travels in a frame, as well as emphasizing what's off camera. "In New York Movie, which shows an usherette standing at the side of a cinema, the lighting of the scene is absolutely the source of its poetry," Mendes said. "The fact that her face is partially obscured creates a sense of loneliness and desolation. You begin to invent your own story from the imagination [depicted] in the world of the painting."
This is all felt in our frame, which shows a despondent Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) waiting for his father (Tom Hanks) to return from murdering his family's killer. In the beginning of the film, Mendes shot Sullivan, Sr. at a distance, fragmented, or through door frames to emphasize a disconnect in the father/son relationship. That role seems reversed here. We're left to fill in the blanks of the boy's thoughts and feelings that are created by this distance. Mendes explains, "Sometimes you know more about emotional states of characters if you can't see their eyes. That's quite a dangerous thing to say when you're dealing with actors who are speaking all the time, but people can underestimate the emotional articulation of a shot that isn't a close-up."
'Road to Perdition' is an impeccable visual feat that demonstrates how color, light and framing can create powerful, emotional imagery. Many of Mendes and Hall's techniques are simple (or made to look so) and quiet, but that doesn't deter from their impact.