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Non-Review Review: Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition may be the best graphic novel adaptation ever to make it to screen – and also perhaps one of the most seldom recognised (very few people seem to realise the film’s roots, perhaps because – as an Oscar contender – it played them down). It’s an old-style biblical fable set in the thirties about the lengths that a father will go to in order to protect his son, but it’s crafted with a skilled hand. It’s a genuine classic.

He's a New Man...

It was an interesting choice for director Sam Mendes to follow his debut, the darkly comic and irreverent American Beauty, with this more solemn and considered tale. The movie follows Michael Sullivan, played by Tom Hanks, a right-hand man to the local mob, as he tries to balance his obligations as a father to his children with his duties as a provider. “None of us will see heaven,” his employer suggests at one point, to which Michael replies that his sone could. “Then do everything you can to see that that happens,” the ageing mobster implores him. However, sometimes the world does not allow it, particularly in that lifestyle. After Michael’s son witnesses a murder, his employer apologises for the child “seeing that for the first time” at such a young age, seemingly suggesting that witnessing such an act opposed to not seeing that at all.

When Michael, spending time with the son he hardly knows, asks what subject in school engaged the boy most, the child responds, “Bible epics.” He explains, “I liked the stories.” There’s a strong sense of those religious narratives flowing through the film, with Michael eventually deciding to travel to Perdition (a small village, but also – perhaps – his ultimate spiritual destination), and constant reflection on whether Michael can satisfy his more mortal obligations while keeping his son pure of heart.

Of course, children learn from their parents. And the film suggests that something gets lost in the translation – children adapt far too easily to this climate of violence. Sullivan’s employer, Rooney, witnesses this with his own child, Connor. When he calls his adult son to task for the murder of an acquaintance, he’s met with a one-liner in reply. The murder isn’t anything Connor is ashamed of, or anything he needs to justify, but something he can joke about. “You think it’s funny?” his father is astonished. At a later stage, we are asked to contrast a child’s silent response to finding his dead mother and brother to his father’s anguished cries on discovering the same grim sight.

He shoots people for a living...

Mendes beautifully crafts his story. Although the tone and material arguably couldn’t be more different from his earlier effort, some of the same themes run through both of them. There’s the idea of a darker underbelly of American culture – the divorce between the wholesome aspirations and the somewhat flawed reality. An experienced hitman, while talking with Michael (who assumes he is a photographer), remarks, “to be paid to do something you love, isn’t that the dream?” Of all the carnage and the damage done, Michael is assured that “it’s all business, and that’s what you fail to understand.”

Mendes does some absolutely stunning work here. Not only does he draw together a phenomenal cast, but he crafts his film magically. From a slow-motion Vertigo-shot introducing a hobbling Jude Law to the constant and skilled use of mirrors, reflections and glass throughout the film, every frame is dripping with care and love. The movie glides along gracefully, never having to compromise or dumb itself down. The aerial shots of Michael’s cross-country trek are stunning, as he makes his way across depression-era America.

It’s great to see Paul Newman in what was perhaps his last big screen live-action role (he would subsequently do Cars and some television work). His portrayal of Rooney drips with the sort of effortless charm Newman exuded throughout his career, but backed up with a spine of raw steel, even for an “old timer”. Regardless, even without the hint of nostalgia of seeing an actor of his skill returning to a meaty dramatic role, he earned his Oscar nomination.

And then there’s Tom Hanks. When you see “mobster hitman”, Hanks is probably the last name which comes to mind – so engrained is he in American popular culture as a loveable everyman. But Mendes doesn’t want his lead defined by his career – he isn’t a bad man, rather a man who does bad things. This isn’t a performance akin to Denzel Washington’s firm reaction to his “nice guy” typecasting in Training Day, but Hanks does seem to enjoy the opportunity to present a bit more moral ambiguity that usual, but still charming. Witness the scene, for example, where he coaches a bouncer through the experience. “You gonna frisk me?” Michael asks the bouncer. “Should I?” the bouncer replies. “It’s a good idea,” Michael concedes.

The rest of the cast is equally solid. Daniel Craig pops up in a small supporting role, as does Stanley Tucci. Jude Law seems to also enjoy a chance to play against type as an uglier assassin fixated with death (though it kinda goes with the territory).

Road to Perdition might have been overshadowed by Mendes’ earlier film, but it’s almost as good. Of course, that’s no crime when you’re talking about American Beauty (although some may consider it over rated), and it’s an impressive movie in its own right.

5 Responses

  1. Heh, funny thing that you happen to review this just as I dug my copy of the novel out of one of the many unpacked boxes left in my basement. What an outstanding film. Mendes works really well with the material here, and I frankly cannot think of a better O’Sullivan than Tom Hanks. I do think that the film could have afforded to get a little bit more violent for Hanks’ sake but I can’t really criticize the film for what it isn’t. Just spectacular stuff. For me, Mendes has rarely been better.

  2. Great film, very underrated in my opinion. I think it’s also worth mentioning the cinematography which is absolutely breathtaking.

  3. As beautiful as it is on DVD it is stunning on Blu Ray. But the only thing I find more gorgeous than that rain sequence is Thomas Newmans haunting but amazing score which is just fantastic.

    Great write up Dan and kudos for calling attention to Paul Newman’s work as I think it gets overlooked.

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