Road to Perdition
Starring: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci
Director:

Sam Mendes

Writing credits: David Self (based on graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard P. Rayner)
Distributor: DreamWorks SKG, 20th Century Fox
Rated: R for violence and language
  (US 2002)

After seeing Sam Mendes' ROAD TO PERDITION the first weekend of its release, I repeatedly attempted to sit down at my trusty computer, with trusty ol' Wordpad up on the screen, and tried to write about it — and couldn't. Again and again, I tried to distill the pages of unintelligible notes I'd scribbled in the theatre into something approximating a coherent, insightful narrative, and couldn't. I found some solace in the fact that fellow Cinemarati member critic Stephen Himes, one of the greatest damn film writers I've ever found in any medium, was finding himself similarly hamstrung by this majestic work that reaffirms why otherwise sane people spend their spare time movie reviews for the reading enjoyment of a bunch of strangers. Himes, however, proceeded to taunt me by writing one of his characteristically insightful yet entertaining analyses, while I continued to ruminate, fret, and ultimately move on to other films.

Still, ROAD TO PERDITION haunted me. So I did the only thing a sane moviegoer could do. I rounded up a friend and went to see it again, and was just as awed the second time. For ROAD TO PERDITION is an incredibly rare thing: the telling of a story that's simple yet profound, straightforward yet symbolic, using the medium of film as a canvas on which is created a work of art.

I wasn't one of those critics who was blown away by AMERICAN BEAUTY. I found it interesting but cold at its core, a function of the emptiness of the lives of the characters portrayed and the environs in which they lived them. There are those who also claim that ROAD TO PERDITION is similarly detached and cold, though there is an inherently operatic quality to films about the Golden Age of Gangsters in America; a timelessness that reflects the themes of honor and family and responsibility and guilt and redemption that infuse great Western literature from the Greek tragedies through Shakespeare and into the great gangster films of the modern era, from THE PUBLIC ENEMY and LITTLE CAESAR through THE GODFATHER and yea, unto THE SOPRANOS on HBO.

Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) works in the employ of Mr. Rooney (Paul Newman), a bootlegger who took him in when he had nothing. Sullivan, who lives comfortably with his wife (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) and two sons (Tyler Hoechlin and Liam Aiken), regards Rooney as a father, while Rooney regards him as almost more of a son than his own biological offspring, the hotheaded Connor (Daniel Craig). When Sullivan's older son Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) stows away in the back of the car and witnesses a murder, Connor decides he must be disposed of. After he murders Sullivan's wife and younger son, thinking he is Michael, Sullivan père et fils flee, pursued by a hit man hired by the Rooneys — a photographer named Maguire (Jude Law) who specializes in filming crime scenes, helping dispatch his subjects when necessary. What ensues is a rather unlikely road trip, in which father and son finally become acquainted.

"Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers," says Newman's character, particularly when sons resemble their fathers perhaps a bit too much. The consequences of sons who are chips off the old block are not always what fathers would like them to be. Rooney's son Connor is a bitter, cynical hothead, insanely jealous of the warm, effortless relationship his father has with Mike Sullivan. If Sullivan is Michael Corleone, Connor is certainly Fredo, with a far shorter fuse. Sullivan's son and namesake is his father's less-favored child because "you were always more like me." Yet just as the adopted Tom Hagen could never be regarded by the Corleones as a wartime consigliere, when forced to choose between his own blood son and his far superior honorary one, Rooney is philosophical: "Leave now...for if you choose to stay, I will mourn the son I lost."

Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard P. Rayner, ROAD TO PERDITION's narrative is hardly original, and there are no surprises in its nonetheless gripping plot. Connor is a two-dimensional bad seed, from the moment we first see him lounging away from the attendees at the wake of a man he killed, curlicues of cigarette smoke (photographed gorgeously by Conrad Hall) rising from his sneering mouth. A childless farm couple who nurse Mike Sullivan back to health from a gunshot wound (in a sequence that could have been lifted verbatim from WITNESS) are a deus ex machina of cosmic proportions. The Big Climactic Massacre that is part and parcel of the gangster oeuvre, for all that it is beautifully photographed and highly effective with its complete lack of gunshot sound effects, is strongly reminiscent of HIGH NOON. But the strong performances and Mendes' strong sense of setting and detail combined with Conrad Hall's spectacularly chiaroscuro cinematography override any clunkiness in the plot.

Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in the same film is perhaps the dream team to end all dream teams. Hanks one of those actors who has become bigger than any role he plays, with the result that you are always aware that you are watching Tom Hanks. Here, his Tom Hanks-ness is almost completely obscured by a somewhat Hitleresque mustache, a slouching gait, and a generally world-weary demeanor. There's nothing snarky about Mike Sullivan. If his father/son chemistry with Newman's Mr. Rooney isn't as apparent as it should be, it's the fault of the script rather than the actors. Newman, who at seventy-plus, is finally starting to be less pretty than his wife Joanne Woodward, is a rarely-seen screen presence at this point, and a role like this shows us what we're missing. With a very slight Irish tint to his voice, he, like Marlon Brando before him, is perfectly adept at conveying the dichotomy between the warm family man and the ruthless killer. Handing Michael Jr., who by now is well aware of what Mr. Rooney is, a silver dollar while reminding him that a man of honor keeps a secret, he's utterly chilling. Newman also has the best speech in the movie, one that could very well join the pantheon of great gangster movie lines, right up there with "Leave the gun....take the cannoli." In the basement of the church where he has just taken communion, he shows that he knows full well that the religious ritual in which he has just participated is a sham. "This is the life we chose...the life we lead. And there's only one thing guaranteed; none of us will see heaven."

If Hanks and Newman are the sun around which the other characters revolve, ROAD TO PERDITION is blessed with superb supporting performances, led by Jude Law's highly stylized turn as Maguire. Law, who is perhaps the most preposterously beautiful human being currently walking the face of the earth, could make a perfectly fine career playing preposterously beautiful human beings, or in the case of THE WISDOM OF CROCODILES, preposterously beautiful vampires. But much to his credit, Law seems to prefer the more interesting road of the character actor, and here, done up by makeup artist John Pritchett as a creepy predator with bad teeth, dirty hair, a derby hat and an incongruously Chaplinesque gait, he turns Maguire into a curiously compelling villain; to the point that he seems to occupy an entirely different story. Watching him peer out from under his malevolent eyebrows while liberally pouring sugar into his coffee and describing his profession as "I shoot the dead," it's like watching Malcolm McDowell's rendering of Anthony Burgess futuristic thug Alex in Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE transported into the 1930's.

Those fortunate enough to either live in the U.K. or have BBC America here in the states may be familiar with Daniel Craig from his shattering performance as the destroyed Geordie in the 1993 miniseries OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH. Unknown to American audiences otherwise, he is yet another of those angular, brooding, blue-eyed English actors, who brings a cold, steely madness to the hotheaded Connor. Stanley Tucci, as Capone associate Frank Nitti, brings a lively energy to the otherwise dour proceedings. As for the younger Sullivans, Liam Aiken, as Peter, the ill-fated younger son, is memorable primarily because he is a dead ringer for John Cusack at the age of eight. Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin, who looks like the love child of Hilary Swank and Leonardo DiCaprio, is a bit uneven as young Michael Sullivan, but his scenes with Hanks perfectly convey that for this boy, the bonding with his father that takes place on this curious road trip, and its excitement, mitigate the shattering event that precipitated it.

Perhaps the true star of ROAD TO PERDITION, however, is the spectacular teaming of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. This is a team that views film as a canvas, and the attention to detail is astonishing. A Rooney family employee (Ciaran Hinds, in a small but superb performance) reads a eulogy to his brother with shaking hands. A scene in which Mike Sr. bids his son goodbye before heading out for one last act of revenge, shows the reflections of rain pelting the windows on the walls of the room, giving an appearance that the walls themselves are weeping. Unlike the warm browns of the GODFATHER films, the palette of ROAD TO PERDITION is grey and green; the colors of rain. Indeed, cold rain is ever-present in Depression Illinois as rendered this team, and the overall look of the film is so wet and bone-chilling cold that the viewer needs a sweater. The period details are impeccable, and aside from a possible anachronism involving Sullivan's gun, period-perfect, right down to a diner waitress nodding assent with the phrase "duck soup".

ROAD TO PERDITION is not as emotionally involving a film as it could be, but the combination of direction, cinematography, performance and score create a work of cinematic art that transcends its familiar subject matter. In a year in which the best films have been small, intimate character studies, ROAD TO PERDITION is grandiose. If it lacks the romantic, rococo close-to-the-skin emotionality of the first two GODFATHER films, it is the most finely crafted film canvas of the year thus far.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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