Revenge and survival
Road to Perdition and Signs: how Hollywood has re-imagined 11 September.
Though set in the gangster’s paradise of 1930s Chicago, Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition reveals quite a bit about contemporary America’s appetite for revenge in the post-11 September era.
The story, told in flashback from a young boy’s point of view, concerns the killing spree that Michael Sullivan Sr (Tom Hanks) goes on after his wife and youngest son are murdered. In the process, he must also protect his eldest son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) from all manner of baddies, including Paul Newman as a local crime boss and Jude Law as a photographer/hit man.
At the risk of paraphrasing Jonathan Rosenbaum’s insightful review of Perdition from the Chicago Reader, the revenge motif celebrated in the film feels particularly irresponsible when American soldiers are still bashing around the Afghan wilderness and President George W Bush issues constant updates on his intentions to invade Iraq. It’s hard to say what’s worse: a summer blockbuster that treats death with video game flippancy or a dour bit of Oscar bait like this, pretending to legitimise ‘necessary’ violence through glamourous gunfire.
During the film’s first 40 minutes, it’s possible to fool oneself into thinking that it is going to be a cinematic essay on the Anger of the Displaced. Some lovely parallels are suggested between Irish immigrants displaced from their country, sons displaced from the love of their fathers, lower-class citizens displaced from economic security because of the Great Depression and mobsters displaced from conventional morality because of their kill-or-be-killed lifestyle. The pressure of these maddening circumstances creates a credible context for the characters’ desperation.
These issues are unfortunately left in the dust as the two Michaels hit the road on their way to Perdition (a fictional town in the state of Illinois), and we’re subsequently bludgeoned with the most banal simpering about Fathers and Sons.
One of the more frustrating aspects of Perdition is the way it absolves Michael Sr of his murderous behaviour by implying his actions will prevent his son from following in his footsteps. This conceit conveniently confuses a sense of duty with a human being’s essential capacity for choice. We are meant to be affected by the symbolism of a parent’s legacy left to his children, but the plot has to back itself into a corner to achieve an approximation of dramatic inevitability.
Mendes and screenwriter David Self apparently didn’t respect their audience or their characters enough to leave Tom Hanks the opportunity for personal redemption, instead of relying on a vague hope that the next generation will succeed where he failed.
On quite the other hand, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs is the first valid response film to the 11 September tragedy. The movie, which began filming on 13 September 2001 and will be released in the UK exactly one year later, uses the threat of an alien invasion to remind us what it felt like to be faced with some of life’s most profound uncertainties. Unlike Perdition, however, it shows how even the most hardened hearts can come out on the other side of adversity with grace and dignity.
Signs casts Mel Gibson as former Episcopalian priest Graham Hess, a man who abandons his vocation after his wife’s sudden death. Graham’s younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) moves in to help raise children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), while their respective griefs and disappointments hang in the air like a haze. But when the crop circles that appear on their farm begin popping up with alarming rapidity elsewhere around the world, Graham is forced to examine his priorities and his faith for the sake of his family’s survival.
What makes this film so powerful and so important right now is the way it incorporates the details of 11 September into the story with laser-like precision. All the most easily recognizable icons of the day are present: noble police officers, courageous children, constant TV coverage, a willingness to talk openly about faith, a tangible sense of doubt about what Tomorrow will bring. Yet they are not treated as ‘icons’, but restored to their original beauty, to the kind of glowing, human fragility that took our collective breath away in the first place.
Writer/director Shyamalan performs a remarkable balancing act here, as he also did in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Many American film reviewers have carped about the film’s deliberate pacing (calling it sluggish) and the actors’ understated emoting (calling it wooden), but they have failed to grasp how drama, suspense, comedy and spiritual enquiry have all been carefully cultivated and sustained in that rigidly proscribed environment. Shyamalan displays a facility for dramatic and thematic economy that verges on Modernist. He is undeniably a man fully in command of his craft.
Much of Signs’ beauty derives from its poetic understanding of human nature. Beyond all the genre trappings, it shows people really trying to do something: trying to reconnect with loved ones, trying to have faith, trying to do the Right Thing. It is rare that we ever get to see characters exerting effort in a film, but the fact that Graham chooses to work through his rage serves as a vital connective tissue between the world we live in and the world we usually see depicted at the movies.
Audience members tempted to dismiss the merit of the twist ending because it’s not as outwardly twisty as the climaxes of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable must be inured to the everyday kick of free will. We all have the ability to orchestrate our own twist endings, and it’s this reminder that gives real value to Signs.
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