ROAD TO PERDITION
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dylan Baker
MPAA Rating: (for violence and language)
Running Time: 1:59
Release Date: 7/12/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
The mob drama has been done many times before but rarely has it been executed with such a deeply visual, melancholic splendor as in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ follow-up to American Beauty. An elegy to innocence lost (or perhaps never existing) and a time bygone, the film is part revenge drama, part coming of age story, and part somber meditation on the relationship between fathers and sons. It exists in the world of organized crime, where loyalty is expected and given but seldom returned, and in an era made immortal by Hollywood films of the past. As well as Mendes can compose a shot and as adeptly skilled as the performances are, perhaps the most striking and accomplished work comes from cinematographer Conrad L. Hall who in photographing the gloomy recesses of a night club or the confined isolation of a roadside diner is able to express as much thematically as any other element. There’s a prevailing sense of solitude emanating from the look and story of the film. Even when two characters are together on screen, they are merely sharing a moment; we understand that they are alone in this lifestyle of deception and betrayal.
The Chicago area during 1931 is mostly known for its Mafioso fame, and Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hired gun for a highly influential Irish mafia family. Sullivan is a particular favorite of John Rooney (Paul Newman), head of the Rooney family, who helped raise Michael as a boy and considers him a son, much to the chagrin of Rooney’s natural son Connor (Daniel Craig). The Sullivan family consists of Michael, his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and his two sons Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken). There’s a silent agreement within the family that the particulars of Michael’s job are to be left unspoken. But curiosity gets the better of Michael Jr. who stows away in the back seat of his father’s car as he and Connor go to talk to a dissatisfied underling. The conversation goes awry, and Michael Jr. witnesses his father’s involvement in an execution. While John is convinced that Michael Jr. will stay silent, Connor sees this as an opportunity and takes matters into his own hands, leaving Michael and Michael Jr. to fend for themselves as Michael seeks vengeance.
The film is rooted in the amoral and apathetic lifestyle of organized crime, and the only sense of right and wrong depends on how much a certain action benefits you at a specific point in time. Honor means placing the needs of the business above all else at all times, and because of one wrong step, those that you have known your whole life can turn their back on you as quickly as that. You can be talking to a man about finding a job one minute, and the next, both of you have reason to kill the other. This is the life Michael has found himself in thanks to circumstances beyond his control and the makeup of his character, which finds loyalty in killing people for a father figure and making money for doing so to provide for your family during the Depression. The central question of the film is will Michael Jr. follow in his father’s footsteps? The test lies on the titular road to Perdition, where, in the physical realm, father and son may find refuge at a sister’s house and where, in the metaphysical realm, Michael and John Rooney’s Catholic sensibilities understand they will spend eternity.
Based on a graphic novel, Road to Perdition opposes the typical qualities of adaptations of such source material, which are generally short on characterization but overflowing with visual polish. Here the screenplay by David Self has a solid understanding of its characters, and Mendes has a tight control of constantly defining them throughout the film. Keeping with the traditional approach to such an adaptation is a distinct and noticeable attempt to maintain the look of a graphic novel. Hall, a veteran cinematographer of many decades, has done some of his most arresting work on this film. Everything comes together to create a drab, dreary world, full of eerie interior lighting, until the occasional sunlight comes in and blinds the surroundings with a piercing sharpness. Filmed on location throughout Illinois, Hall manages to make urban locales look just as stark as some of the most desolate farmland. Loneliness, especially when among other people, is a key theme to the film, and somehow everyone appears removed from each other—dealing with some unknown internal struggle. The actual violence is kept to a surprising minimum, but the end result is often portrayed with bloody finesse.
The film has been garnering early notice for the fact that Tom Hanks plays completely against type as a gangster, news that is both true and false. Michael is not necessarily a villain but an antihero. Hanks, the quintessential Everyman of modern film, plays a character who does evil things but for the right reasons, which is a large difference from characters who do good things for the right reasons, but the sympathy and understanding of his character and the way he is able to express strong emotion without or with minimal words are still there. Tyler Hoechlin is effective as young Michael Jr., but his performance has a strange, technical feel to it at times. Paul Newman plays Rooney without menace, which makes him slightly unnerving. Jude Law is also incredibly unsettling as the John Malkovich-looking crime scene photographer Maguire, who takes his job about twenty steps too far.
At the heart of Road to Perdition is the study of fathers and sons at different generations and with different backgrounds. The story is the stuff mob dramas are reliant on, but in such able hands, the film transcends its generic restrictions. Longtime theater director Mendes again shows a desire to choose films that have a strong focus on character. The film is hopeful but never sentimental. The concept that a condemned man can redeem himself of all past transgressions is thoughtfully avoided. Instead it asks how much an innocent can take before wandering a similar path. The answer, thankfully, is quite a lot.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.