Road to Perdition

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ROAD TO PERDITION

5/10

Sam Mendes : USA 2002 : 116 mins

In March 2000 Sam Mendes won the Best Director Oscar for American Beauty, despite having never previously worked on a feature film. The last time that had happened was 1956, when TV veteran Delbert Mann won for Marty. But, to place Mendes’ historic achievement in perspective, it should be remembered that his main rivals for the ’99 prize were M Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), and Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules.) The spooky, horror-tinged nature of his essentially pulpy material meant that Shyamalan was never a real threat. The much more “respectable” Hallstrom had, however, made massive strides in the last weeks of Oscar campaigning thanks to the strenuous efforts of his studio, Miramax. If Cider House had only taken a little more money at the box office – and, perhaps, been a little less overtly pro-choice in its stance on abortion – Hallstrom might well have been the one making the trip to the podium.

But American Beauty had taken so much money, and reaped so many critical awards, that the Academy had little choice but to award it the two main prizes of Director and Picture, with Ball, Conrad Hall (cinematographer), and Kevin Spacey (lead actor) also collecting statuettes. Two and a half years on, Mendes delivers Road To Perdition, a faithful adaptation by David Self of a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner – which in turn was inspired by the Japanese movie/comics-series Lone Wolf and Cub which date back to the early 1970s: see http://mightyblowhole.com/lonewolf/index.htm for more details.

Road To Perdition is the story if Michael Sullivan (Hanks), a hitman-enforcer for the Irish-American crime syndicate headed by veteran John Rooney (Paul Newman) that rules Rock Island, Illinois. It’s the winter of 1931, and Sullivan has long since replaced Rooney’s own son, hot-head Connor (Daniel Craig) in the old man’s affections. Connor, however, has been conducting some illicit, corrupt operations of his own – and when Sullivan threatens to uncover them, Connor contrives to paint the assassin as a sthreat to the operation, gunning down his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son Peter (Liam Aiken), forcing Sullivan to go on the run with his remaining child, Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin). The Rooneys, meanwhile, hire Weegee-like crime-photographer and expert killer Maguire (Jude Law) to eliminate the troublesome Sullivans.

As with Christopher Nolan – who followed up the edgily brilliant Memento with the solid, but slightly dull Insomnia Road To Perdition is a disappointingly careful and muted film to come from a young British who’s shown himself capable of much more interesting and challenging material. This is a grindingly professional piece of work, in which the 37-year-old Mendes seems to be in deep awe of his 76-year-old Director of Photography. In his thirtieth film, Hall crafts a series of compositions that pay equal tribute to painters Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell (who between them receive dozens of such homages from cinematographers every year) and Godfather cinematographer Gordon ‘Prince of Darkness’ Willis. Hall effectively takes over the movie, subsuming even the most violent and bloody of scenes in his rigorously aestheticised approach – the sound design (by John Patrick Pritchett and Scott A Hecker) is also distractingly arty, with two climactic bouts of gunplay unfolding in contrasting forms of eerie silence.

Mendes also Beauty collaborator Newman far too much leeway, resulting in an intrusively loud and, occasionally, crude score that underlines every point a dozen times. The result is a movie that has very little room to breathe – threatening, in fact to become a ‘Painted Desert’: the title of a film advertised on a cinema-marquee we see in the distance during one of the Sullivans’ implausible bank robberies. It’s all very pleasant, but Mendes and his collaborators might have been better advised to learn some lessons from Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, a much more rough-edged, compelling and convincing journey back to the darkest days of the Depression. Instead, every scene seems freighted with an ostentatious solemnity – though at its heart, Road To Perdition is nothing more than yet another gloopy slice of American dad-worship exploring a child’s relationship with his father: a clich that seems less bearable than ever in the light of Bill Paxton’s iconoclastic Frailty.

While Michael Jr’s voice-over begins and ends the movie with a note of supposed ambiguity (telling us that views of Michael Sr apparently range from ‘good man’ to ‘not a bit of good in him’) the father we see is an unfailingly honourable, noble, concerned parent. Reports that Hanks is at long last playing a villain are, sadly, hopelessly wide of the mark. Newman, on the other hand, invests John Rooney with a chillingly believable streak of ruthlessness in what is, apparently, the legendary actor’s final screen appearance. Craig’s Connor also unambiguously wears a ‘bad-guy’ hat, to the extent that at one point the lighting is arranged to give him a distinctly Hitlerian moustache.

But this is about as far as the film goes towards the idea that the Depression may represent some terminal downturn for humanity (rather like the Industrial Revolution in Herzog’s Heart of Glass, for example.) Because,despite endless religious talk and imagery, Road To Perdition barely bothers to engage with any of the ideas it raises – we’re never even told exactly what ‘Perdition’ actually means. This is, essentially, a comic-book (or ‘graphic novel’) tale told in broad, comic-book strokes – it’s telling that the most incisive characterisations (Stanley Tucci as Mafia bigwig Frank Nitti, Dylan Baker as punctilious accountant Alexander Rance) are kept firmly on the sidelines.

Road to Perdition is, at heart, nothing more than Miller’s Crossing with pretensions to class – and it’s scarcely more plausible than the Coen Brothers’ idiosyncraticallly larkish version of the ‘period gangster movie.’ Perdition, however, demands to be taken so achingly seriously with every ochre-brown frame that it ends up feeling distorted by its creators’ and participants’ desperate yearning for more Oscar glory. For such a pretty sight, it’s not really a pretty sight at all.

23rd September, 2002
(seen 20th, UCI MetroCentre, Gateshead)

For the short version of this review click here

by Neil Young
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