Road to Perdition
Screenplay : David Self (based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Tom Hanks (Michael Sullivan), Tyler Hoechlin (Michael Sullivan Jr.), Paul Newman (John Rooney), Jude Law (Harlen Maguire), Daniel Craig (Connor Rooney), Stanley Tucci (Frank Nitti), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annie Sullivan), Kevin Chamberlin (Frank the Bouncer), Dylan Baker (Alexander Rance), Ciarán Hinds (Finn McGovern), Liam Aiken (Peter Sullivan)
Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes' follow-up to his 1999 Oscar-winning hit American Beauty, is a stately, elegant gangster film, beautifully directed and somehow both moving and slightly distanced. Perhaps it is the film's formal beauty--its graceful camera movements, rich dark-amber hues, and precise compositions--that keeps it at a slight distance, almost too gorgeous an image to penetrate. Sometimes you find yourself wanting to appreciate it more than become emotionally involved in it.
Yet, Mendes, who began his artistic career as a theater director, knows characters and he knows actors, and here he is working with some of the best Hollywood has to offer. In a slight departure from his usual roles, Tom Hanks stars as Michael Sullivan, a Midwest Irish gangster who finds himself on the run from his own gang when his 12-year-old son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), witnesses a killing. The film is set in 1931, the same year that the short-lived classic ga ngster cycle kicked off with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, two films that defined the social-mythic impulse of the tragic American gangster.
Mendes draws on such films for inspiration, and at times Road to Perdition seems torn between elevating and deflating the gangster myth at its core. Sullivan is, in every sense of the phrase, a tragic hero. He is a ruthless killer on a mission of vengeance, but he is also a sympathetic father trying to protect his son, both literally in the sense of keeping him alive and figuratively in the sense of shielding him from the horrors of his line of work, footsteps in which he does not want his son to follow. And, because he is played by Tom Hanks, he brings with him that star's quality of all-American decency. It is a credit to Hanks' multi-level performance that he evokes Sullivan's violence and tenderness in equal measures, sometimes at the same time, such as in a crucial close-up in a church where we can read every bit of conflict on his face.
One of the overriding themes of Road to Perdition is that of fatherhood; this is not fatherhood in the sense of grand Godfather-style patriarchy, but rather the inherent drive of fathers to love and protect their sons no matter what. The crux of the plot involves Sullivan's surrogate father, the gang leader John Rooney (Paul Newman), and how he is forced to choose between Sullivan, the surrogate son whom he respects, and Connor (Daniel Craig), his son of flesh and blood who is trigger-happy and thoughtless. It is Connor's violent actions that send Sullivan and his son on the run, and Rooney cannot do anything but send someone after them, in this case a morbid hitman named Harlen Maguire (Jude Law, looking frighteningly skeletal), who makes money on the side by photographing the bloody corpses of his victims.
Much of the film's dramatic impetus comes from the relationship between Sullivan and Michael Jr. The early passages of the film establish that they do not have much of a relationship--Sullivan knows little about his son, thus their six weeks on the road together becomes a journey of both self-discovery and a father and son finally coming to know each other under the worst conditions. A crucial element of the film, set up in the opening voice-over narration (which is, unfortunately, unnecessary), is how Michael views his father: How does a child balance his inherent love for his father with the knowledge of that father's capacity for violence?
Mendes, again working with veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, makes every scene in Road to Perdition a painterly work of art. Starting in a small industrial Illinois town in the dead of winter, they paint a portrait of mythical characters trapped in the decidedly un-mythical Midwest, full of gray snow and sullen skies. The interiors are rich with golden hues, and they take us into the red-lit backrooms of speakeasies and the cool glow of roadside diners. Every location has its own look, its own feel, from the dilapidated farm of a Depression-stricken couple, to the elaborate Chicago offices of Al Capone. There is also great attention paid to production design, as set designer Nancy Haigh (A.I.) and costume designer Albert Wolsky (Galaxy Quest) evoke the details of the Prohibition era without sliding into visual cliché.
In an era when a rapid-cutting, in-your-face aesthetic rules, Mendes has created a film of exquisite tracking shots and long takes and deep space. His theater background shows in his ability to use the cinematic space to great effect. His deployment of violence is excellent, as he focuses primarily not on the act itself, but the consequences of those acts. Road to Perdition is a bloody movie, with shotguns and tommy guns and ambushes and assassinations, but Mendes is always primarily focused on how these gory events affect those who are pulling the trigger and those who are witness. There are moments of genuine suspense, such as when Sullivan finds himself face-to-face with Harlen Maguire in a small diner, and Mendes allows us to figure out how and when Sullivan determines who he is. He also heightens certain moments, such as a crucial scene in which a number of characters are machine-gunned, and Mendes drops out all sound and forces us to focus on the one man left standing in the midst of the bloodshed.
With Road to Perdition, Sam Mendes shows that his feature debut was no fluke--he is a deeply gifted filmmaker who is unafraid to go his own route. In many ways, Road to Perdition is a better film than American Beauty, which was so different and confident that many overrated it. My only fear, then, is that this effort will be underrated in an attempt to compensate. But, regardless, Road to Perdition will be admired for years to come.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick