Of the many magical things cinema can do, one thing in particular virtually never fails to knock me out: the way the medium can elongate a single brief moment into an apparent eternity. Frequently, this is accomplished via some form of slow motion. That device can admittedly be a laughable cliché in the wrong hands (I’d nominate The Passion Of The Christ for most egregious misuse in recent memory), but it remains utterly sublime when, say, Wong Kar-Wai slows a charged encounter between two not-yet-lovers down to a spine-tingling crawl. In fact, my original idea for this installment of Scenic Routes was to discuss my favorite shot of all time, which is the moment in Chungking Express when smitten counter-girl Faye Wong watches Tony Leung drink a cup of coffee, shot in a way that makes the two of them seem to be moving at a tiny fraction of the world’s actual speed. But that’s just a single shot, not a scene.
Plus, as gorgeously expressive as variable speed can sometimes be, I’m perhaps even more impressed when a director can create that same standstill effect in real time. At which point one would usually break out some Sergio Leone, and I thought about that, too. Instead, however, and at the risk of sniggers, I’d like to highlight a relatively unsung sequence from Road To Perdition—not an entirely successful film, to be sure, but beautifully directed by Sam Mendes, whom I don’t think has ever recovered from the post-Oscars American Beauty backlash. (Critically, that is. He’s slated to helm the next James Bond picture, so he’s doing fine, apart from the new Kate Winslet-shaped hole in his life.) Given Mendes’ background in theater, I find this scene especially remarkable, as it makes superb use of a tool not available on the stage; by now the guy should be a wizard with actors and composition, but not necessarily with time. All you need to know, if you haven’t seen the movie, is that Tom Hanks plays an enforcer for a criminal kingpin (yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that), and here he arrives to deliver a letter.
A lot of folks found Road To Perdition ostentatiously overdirected, especially compared to the pulp-inflected graphic novel on which it was based. I can understand that complaint, to a degree. There is a garish theatricality, for example, to the shot in which the bouncer leads Hanks to Calvino’s office at the back of the building, passing first across a crowded dance floor suffused in electric blue, then (after opening a curtain, no less) entering what appears to be some sort of especially depressing bordello—a room that we instantly know must be of ill repute, because it’s the approximate color of Carrie at the prom. The snake-shaped movement from left to right across the two rooms is nicely choreographed, but the lighting is just plain over the top, and I feel confident that Mendes, rather than famed cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (whose final film this was), is to blame for that decision. He’s just trying a bit too hard.
On the other hand, Mendes also undercuts that needless expressionism via the bouncer’s mundane nattering, which gradually reveals itself to be a job application. The aggressive obsequiousness that Kevin Chamberlin—an acclaimed stage actor, twice Tony-nominated—brings to this brief but vivid performance gives the scene an unusual flavor, and makes the character’s almost immediate death oddly poignant, even though the movie in no way lingers on it. (Hanks now fears for his family’s safety, and we quickly move elsewhere.) Likewise, I love what Doug Spinuzza, an actor with no other credits of any real note, does with Calvino: In spite of the gun he carefully hides on his desk, we don’t really perceive this dude as any sort of threat to our hero, because his demeanor is that of a schoolboy caught passing notes. These three personalities make for a bizarre Mexican standoff, especially given that two of the three participants aren’t sure whether they’re actually in one.
(Before I get to that, however, a quick digression on Hanks—not because it’s especially relevant to this scene, in which he’s little more than Star Presence, but because I know it’ll come up in the comments. Was he miscast? I don’t think so. Granted, I haven’t read the graphic novel, and maybe he doesn’t much resemble its concept of Michael Sullivan. As written for the screen, though, the role calls not for a menacing, twitchy Chris Walken type, but for a family man who kills only out of loyalty to his employer/surrogate father-figure, Paul Newman [and later for revenge], and who’s explicitly contrasted with the impulsive, smoldering, Walken-esque figure played by Daniel Craig. (Craig can be seen briefly and confusingly in the above clip; he’s the one who wrote the letter Hanks delivers.) It’s a sentimental depiction of a hit man, no question, but Hanks answers the description, and I think he does a more-than-creditable job.)
Anyway. Calvino opens the letter, which he assumes has something to do with delinquent payments, and what follows is roughly 33 seconds of magnificent tension-fraught stasis, a small eternity. Of course, only the characters remain still. Mendes and his editor, Jill Bilcock, cut 14 times in those 33 seconds—mostly back and forth between Calvino and Hanks, though Calvino’s quick glance in the direction of the bouncer inspires a reaction shot (with the bouncer’s worried, confused glance bouncing the camera back to Hanks) and we see Hanks become aware of the gun hidden beneath the magazine. Again, you can’t create mounting anxiety this way onstage, and I don’t think a single, 33-second-long master shot would have been remotely effective, either. The constantly changing perspective, in combination with the absence of movement (as very distinctly opposed to, for example, the hyperactive editing in a Michael Bay flick), subtly alters our perception, stretching this charged moment until it snaps.
And then there’s the music. It isn’t not a coincidence, I suspect, that what we hear emanating from the dance floor is the same five-note phrase (plus modulation) repeated over and over and over, so that we feel trapped in amber aurally as well as visually. Effective as the sound design is, though, it doesn’t work nearly as well on home video (or on a computer) as it did in a first-rate theater, unless you’re fortunate and wealthy enough to have one of those massive living-room systems with the giant subwoofer and so forth. Seeing the barrel of Calvino’s gun slowly judder out from beneath the magazine into Hanks’ view packs more of a wallop when the subterranean bass notes are also shaking you. Perhaps I’m just glorifying eight-year-old memories (it wouldn’t be the first time), but my recollection is of a truly cavernous, far-away-rumbling quality to the jazz refrain that almost literally jostled me to the edge of my seat. Experiencing it on ordinary speakers just doesn’t feel remotely the same.
In any case, I’m not among the folks bitching that Mendes is all wrong for James Bond. Not that this scene, or Road To Perdition generally, demonstrates an action sensibility—but it does suggest that Mendes, in spite of his theatrical background, intuitively understands how to communicate in images, which is more than one can say for most of the Bond directors over the years. (Michael Apted? Roger Spottiswoode? Marc Forster?) And I’d much rather see him use that fundamentally emphatic gift in the service of big-budget Hollywood entertainment than watch him inflate the hell out of a quiet, character-driven novel like Revolutionary Road. Winning an Oscar his first time at bat has done the guy no favors. Maybe he’s found his niche.