Road To Perdition
“Sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers,” preaches John Rooney (Paul Newman), an aging, sentimental mob boss in Road to Perdition
. Add a couple gunfights and Tom Hanks and you already get gist the new Sam Mendes movie. Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a hitman and semi-adopted son of Rooney, and it seems both Sullivan and Rooney pay little attention to their real sons. When Sullivan’s son witnesses a killing, Rooney’s jealous son kills the rest of his family, and both Michael and his son are forced to run from the mob while trying to track down their family’s killer.
Thankfully without the blatant, clichéd Alan Ball script, Mr. Mendes has picked a short and sweet father/son revenge tale to follow up his acclaimed debut American Beauty. The brutal simplicity of Michael’s quest for vengeance and his son’s struggle to maintain a relationship with a father he doesn’t really know is a concise thematic source for an equally blunt film, and this simplicity probably stems from the graphic novel (read: long comic book) Road to Perdition
is based on. Not being familiar with its source, I found the film hard to nail down; it mainly strays from the romanticized gangster myth made famous by The Godfather
, and in Road to Perdition
everything is infused with a solemn acceptance of the violent job these kind of people do. Everyone speaks with a painful tone in their voice, like being a mobster was not their first choice job, and they are sad to see where their lives have taken them. Yet just when you think the whole movie is going to be a grim fatalistic tale, director Sam Mendes lights sparks every time someone has to die. Renowned DP Conrad Hall shoots most of the movie in the somber dark grey, light grey, blackish brown antiquity of the rich homes and bleak towns of 1931, winterclad Illinois, but once Tom Hanks pulls out a gun suddenly unseen colors leap up, slow motion starts, evocative “realistic” action choreography takes over as enormously loud gunshots echo and bombard the audience. Suffice to say the ‘30s gangster violence in the film is indeed stylish, especially in its simple brutality, and these bursts of violence instead of being grotesque, distant and gruesome like a Takeshi Kitano film, add an excitement missing from the rest of the movie.
Road to Perdition
is a treat for Tom Hanks fans, for once the man looks downtrodden and introverted, and, yes, this time he is kinda a badguy, quiet Michael Sullivan is obviously the biggest career turn Tom Hanks has taken since he won his first Oscar. The cast is also rounded out nicely with, Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, and a balding, hunched over Jude Law as nutcase of a hitman sent after the two Sullivans who takes and sells pictures of dead people he kills. But David Self’s screenplay cannot do these men justice, not even Paul Newman, no matter how nicely Conrad Hall lights the period sets, the film’s two themes of father/son relationships and fatalistic vengeance have a zen poem simplicity that could easily have fit a quiet, moody ‘30s gangster film, but Mr. Self feels it is necessary to hammer in the themes at every chance he gets. In fact, almost every time a major character meets another they have some sort of poorly veiled conversation on the subject itself. It’s not that Road to Perdition
doesn’t do its subject justice; it is that it does it too much justice, and it begins to get dull after a while. Either Self or Mendes, I cannot tell who, should learn when to let silence and the situation alone speak for itself, which would avoid the need for repetition. Contrived coincidences and plot points fill out the events that don’t deal specifically with the themes, which usually means that the stylish gunfights turn out to be under question mark raising circumstances.
Mendes roots most of the film in a half dark, eternally sad atmosphere of someone who knows that this sort of 30’s mafia loyalty, family bonding is part of a time is long gone (has he ever seen a 80’s HK action movie??), but in between the occasional outburst of slick, loud violence, and arguments about family loyalty in the middle of foggy old manor houses and giant, shiny skyscrapers the movie includes painfully lighthearted montages of Hanks and his son (played by a very striking looking Tyler Hoechlin, a boy who is apparently born solemn beyond his years) “slowly bonding.” Both characters seem quick to forgive each others for the film’s tragedies, and their onscreen bonding, with the exception of one scene, happens only in theory. It is indeed hard to portray the character motivations of the father and son considering they seem to exist only in the movie, which is opened and closed by narration by the younger Sullivan, and it seems that if the characters had really lived a life up to point in this movie, then they probably would have gotten over, or at least confronted the problems they have. Add to this a painful lack of female characters, and one gets a film that is claustrophobically obsessed with the lessons that all these obviously tragic male figures have to teach.