Interpretations of Violence in Films - Film Review: Road to Perdition

Interpretations of Violence in Films - Film Review: Road to Perdition

Hollywood’s productions have had a great deal of impact on our society since first being introduced early in the century. Films and shows specifically have evolved over the years but still have same effects on their viewers since the beginning of theater. We show great interest in productions such as these because we as viewers tend to identify with the fictional characters. Violence in film can be interpreted in many ways, but I feel as though it can benefit the viewer as long as one can understand and relate to the character’s perspective and hopefully learn from the villain’s mistake. James Harold, the author of A Moral Never-Never Land solidifies my argument by stating that violence in movies can stimulate viewers due to its containment of both sympathetic and repulsive elements (243). Dissimilarly, Vivian Sobchack, who published the essay, The Postmorbid Condition,writes that the increasing violence in films demeans humanity and ultimately makes the modern films “senseless and insignificant” (375). In order to avoid a biased analysis, I observed a film called Road to Perdition, through a perspective of both authors to thoroughly understand what specific argument suited mine best. With the help of two additional outside sources, Film Review: Road to Perdition written by Marc Oxoby and A Sociological Perspective on Television Violence and Aggression composed by George Comstock, I was able to apply their ideas to my own interpretation of the film and create a well-built, personal argument.
The film, Road to Perdition, takes place in Illinois during the Great Depression and begins with Michael Sullivan, who is secretly an assassin for John Rooney, an organized crime boss, getting back from one of his frequent meetings with the mob. The first scene starts with Michael Sullivan, Jr. spying on his father through a small crack in the bedroom door. He sees a very surprising, most unexpected object—a handgun that his father conceals in his sports coat. Out of curiosity, the boy hides in the trunk of his father’s vehicle and goes with him to pick up a man by the name of Connor Rooney, John Rooney’s son and crime syndicate. Then, the two men arrive in an abandoned alcohol manufacturer to speak with a disgruntled employee. When they go inside, Michael, Jr. gets out of the car to investigate what his father was doing. He sees his father, along with his colleague, shooting and killing the unhappy employee. Subsequently, Michael Sullivan runs out of the building and sees his boy. He asks his son to promise to keep this a secret and tells Connor not to inform the boss of this mishap. Later that night, paranoid Connor goes over to the Sullivan residents to erase the problem. However, Connor mistakes Michael, Jr. for his younger brother and murders him along with their mother. Michael Sullivan is furious when he finds out of his betrayal and ends up leaving with his son to find Connor in Chicago. When Michael asks for assistance from his ex-boss in Chicago he’s denied and made a fool of for trying to go after John Rooney’s son. This angers Sullivan, so he and his son go on a robbery spree to attempt to embezzle the crime syndicates laundered money. When the crime family finds about the string of robberies they immediately figure out that it was Sullivan, and consequently dispatch an assassin to kill both the father and the son. Meanwhile the Sullivan’s are still on their manhunt to find Connor’s location. Michael abducts one of Rooney’s accountants in a hotel where he then ends up being trapped and inevitably exchanges gunfire with the assassin that was dispatched to kill him. Michael escapes with a gunshot to the arm and falls unconscious. Michael, Jr. drives his wounded father to a farm where an elderly couple treats them to food and a place to stay until Michael recovers from his injury. After his recovery, Michael discovers John Rooney’s secret hideout from the information the accountant had given him. He finds John and demands for permission to kill Connor; however, Rooney obviously dismisses the request to murder his son. Furthermore, Sullivan ends up impulsively shooting John and his men to death. After John’s murder, Michael receives a tip to where Connor may be staying. He then tracks down Connor and murders him while he was bathing. The Sullivan’s flee to a vacant summer house in Michigan. Little does Michael know before entering the house, but the hired hitman is waiting for him at that same premise. When Michael goes inside, he unfortunately gets attacked by the assassin. Michael, Jr. hears the multiple gunshots inside the house and sneaks up on the hitman with a handgun his father gave him. Nevertheless, the boy is unable to pull the trigger, but does manage to attract the assassin’s attention which enables his father to use the last of his to energy to fire off one round at the assassin so that his son wouldn’t have the guilt of murdering someone for the rest of his life. Michael, Jr. grieves over his father’s death, but learns of the love his father had for his family and the sacrifices he made to protect his son (Road to Perdition).

In his essay, James Harold implies that certain kinds of violence have comprehensive, versatile views, meaning that it has both “sympathetic and repulsive elements” (241). These fundamentals are quite beneficial to the viewer since they entail thoughts of evil as well as thoughts of good. Harold argues that it isn’t morally wrong to care about an evil character such as Tony from the Sopranos because one can generate complex inspirations from the characters. “We use our own minds to imitate that we imagine is going on in the minds of characters, and we feel an emotion that is in some ways like the emotion that the character feel—cognitive science (Harold 243). In essence, we relate to our favorite characters by feeling the same emotions they feel as if we’re actually them through the duration of the film or show. Harold suggests that we as viewers “identify or sympathize with a specific character on screen” (243). According to him, we obtain potent illustrations from main characters and depict them as real people. He specifically identifies Tony from Sopranos as “a character who is rich and complex” because Tony is a father who deals with domestic problems as well as his own mental problems just like many of the fathers in our society today (245). Shows and films such as Sopranos present the element of verisimilitude which essentially means that the show or film resembles an actual truth or reality of a typical person’s life. In Road to Perdition, Michael Sullivan resembles a real father who attempts to support and protect his family by doing whatever is necessary like most of the fathers in the world. One might depict Michael as an evil and corrupt individual, but they should also consider the fact that he was forced into that line of work in order to support his family which unfortunately ended up harming them.

Dissimilar to Harold’s concepts, Vivian C. Sobchack, in The Postmorbid Condition, writes about the senseless violence that is shown in Hollywood films today. She argues regarding the absurd violence that Hollywood introduced to us in the early 80’s, and how it is utterly different from that of the films made prior to 1980. Fundamentally, she is saying that modern-day films veered away from the concept of having minimal violence with complemented rationale, to an abundance of violence which solely serves to make the films seem more action-packed without any moral purpose. This abundance of violence is usually accompanied by special effects—the enormous amount of explosions, human flesh and gruesome images. She argues that the increasing body count in violent films just simply lessens our regards for the violence in films as well as the real world; “Violence, like ‘shit,’ happens—worth merely a bumper sticker nod that reconciles it with a general sense of helplessness (rather than despair)” (373). According to Sobchack, the advancements in technology have been the reason for the creation of special effects that produce these violent images which ultimately dehumanize our standards of violence. “The Fordist assembly line and its increasing production of bodies consumed as they are violently ‘wasted’ on the screen, come the production of bodies as both the technological subjects and subjected to technology enhanced and extended” (374). In movies bodies are depicted as simple objects and not human beings (375). Sobchack then justifies our requests for these special effects in violent films, “We need noise and constant stimulation and quantity to make for a lack of significant meaning” (373). I happen to disagree with this point because in the film that I observed, the violence was represented by an actual motive which was revenge, and it was not a film that was produced before the 80’s; so obviously it doesn’t meet Sobchack’s criteria for senseless violent movies. However, she does bring up an interesting point--that we rely too much on special effects when determining whether the movie is successful or not (374). I know that when I see a trailer for a movie I always get excited about the action-packed special effects which really do persuade me to go see the movie. Thus, I do concur with her that we rely on the special effects too much which ultimately dehumanizes our judgment in the quality of films. Lastly, she makes another convincing point by exclaiming that violence on screen is senseless, “But so is life under the extremes of technology and uncivil conditions” (375). And to a certain extent I have to agree and relate the film, Road to Perdition, because one can say that Michael Sullivan results to violence to express his revenge and thus it should be perfectly normal or acceptable in a society if one can receive the same respect that Michael received from his son and viewers for his courageous acts to protect his family. Essentially, one may think that it is not a big deal to murder people for revenge just because they see Sullivan waste numerous bodies to serve justice for his families’ murderer. I suppose that this concept of relating violence in films to that of the violence in our own backyards really does pose great concern to our humanity.
There are quite a few ideas that Harold and Sobchack disagree upon which creates several interesting points. First and foremost, James Harold informs us of the moral response that can be generated from these violent characters. “Productions like The Sopranos which provide multiple moral perspectives on evil characters, and which offer room for moral reflection, might even be good for us, rather than evil” (248). Harold is basically saying that we as viewers are able to reflect and better ourselves from some of these violence-prone characters. In contrast, Sobchack challenges Harold by arguing that violence is senseless and demeaning to the viewer. “There seems no moral agenda or critique of violence” (374). According to her, violence in today’s movies is only to provide the viewer with special effects—gruesome images of bodily flesh and action-packed scenes without a significant purpose. The next contradiction I found between the two authors was their difference of opinion regarding the importance of characters in violent films. Harold incorporates Tony’s character into his argument, “We get a very strong picture of Tony as a complete human being” (245). On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sobchack states, “The bodies now subjected to violence are just ‘dummies’” (375). Harold sees the characters in violent films as complex, emotional beings whereas Sobchack calls them “dummies”. Personally, I completely oppose Sobchack’s opinion because I believe in Road to Perdition; the characters are similar to us and encompass realistic traits such as that Michael, Jr. loves and appreciates what his father did for him even though he committed terrible acts. I would feel the same way if my father had to do whatever was necessary to protect my family. The last but not least element that the two authors ponder about is how the violence in movies relates to our cultures. Harold argues that The Sopranos are strikingly realistic: “Virtually every element, including the psychoanalysis, the New Jersey settings, the language used by the characters, the family dynamics, the surveillance techniques, and the mob structure is very close to what is found in the real world” (245). Hence, I think that Harold’s point is in fact a major contradiction to Sobchack’s idea of violent films being merely an exaggeration of the real world. Her argument is that, “These excessive representations of the grotesquery of being embodied…they are exaggerations of concrete conditions in the culture of which they are a part” (374). Road to Perdition challenges her case because the Sullivan family functions just like any other family except for the fact that Michael is an assassin, but I am sure there are fathers just like him in the real world— i.e. Iceman from New Jersey who was also an undercover hitman.

After analyzing my outside sources I was able to gather some valuable information which supported both Harold’s and Sobchack’s ideas. In the film review of Road to Perdition, Marc Oxoby provided key ideas that strengthened my argument and corresponded with Harold’s argument. Oxoby concurs with Harold by affirming that the characters in this film were more than just one-dimensional movie fillers. “None of these characters is loquacious—but evokes great complexity, especially in the emotional relationship between father and son” (1). This obviously challenges Sobchack’s notion of the characters being ‘senseless’, or without a ‘moral agenda’ (374). Furthermore, Oxoby brings up another point which goes along with Harold’s idea of verisimilitude—meaning that the movie has realistic representations of our culture. “There has been considerable attention paid to the historical details of, for instance, 1930s Chicago, which lends to the visual beauty of the film” (3). Oxoby’s mentioning of the realistic representations found in the movie also challenges Sabchock’s idea of violent films being too exaggerated. Conclusively, Oxoby exclaims that Road to Perdition is a success which “comes as a worthy contributor to the gangster genre” (3). The last outside source I used was a study conducted by George Comstock, a professor from Syracuse University, on the sociological perception on TV violence. He says that the violence in the media does affect our culture as a whole and can absolutely cause emotional distress in the viewers. “There is a statistically significant, positive relationship between exposure to television or film violence and aggressive and antisocial behavior” (1186). Comstock also declares that “portrayals that depict behavior as effective, socially approved, and appropriate for the viewer and the presence of motive to seek or accept behavioral guidance” (1194). This goes hand in hand with Sobchack’s argument—in her essay she states that senseless violence in films connects with the meaningless violence found in our society due to a “lack of a moral context in this decade of extreme relativism” (375). Comstock’s study moreover reinforces her argument, which is that the lack of consequences for violence in films results in lack of regard for the violence in our culture, and challenges Harold’s idea of us learning a new, “good” perspective from violence in films.

In conclusion, I feel that Road to Perdition is a great film that significantly challenges Sobchack’s views and strengthens mine and Harold’s argument. This movie includes complex characters with great emotions that go beyond Sobchack’s interpretation of violent movies as being senseless and demeaning to our culture. From the research that I partook in, I was able to establish a definite response to Sobchack and was also able to utilize Harold’s argument to support my own and create the obvious standpoint which was that the violent films can in fact benefit the viewer through the various perspective of the complex, multi-dimensional characters that are falsely depicted as violent for all the wrong reasons.

Works Cited

Comstock, George. A Sociological Perspective on Television Violence and Aggression. American Behavioral Scientist. Apr. 2008. Syracuse University. 5 Mar. 2009 .

Harold, James. "A Moral Never-Never Land: Identifying..." Signs of Life in the U.S.A. Fifth ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 241-249.

Oxoby, Marc. Film Reviews: “Road to Perdition" Film and History 32:2 (2002): 1-3

Road to Perdition. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. DVD.DreamWorks SKG, 2002.

Sobchack, Vivian. "The Postmorbid Condition.” Signs of Life in the U.S.A. Fifth ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 372-37.