The Road to Perdition
pretty much met my expectations, which, unfortunately, were quite low. It is quintessential white elephant art, impeccably well-crafted (though rather anonymously directed in my opinion, though Sam Mendes manages to replicate the family dinner shot from American Beauty
, so I guess that is his auteurist signature, and what was with dollying the camera forward to the back of sitting people’s head, people weren’t sneaking up on them), impeccably tasteful, and impeccably dull (with a few exceptions). Yeah, I got the film’s message: sins of the father, the ultimate strength of father-son bonds, hoping your kids have a better life than you....blah, blah, blah. I personally thought the film was principally a showcase for Conrad Hall’s excellent cinematography (the rich color palette, the moody shadows, the artful shafts of light) and the production design, which was most impressive. Very Oscar worthy.
You can literally see the gravitas welling up in Tom Hanks, with every moody, resigned look and significant pause, before his dialogue. Hanks can do gravitas well, I’ve seen it before, and he can do something even harder, he can deliver gravitas with a lighter touch, like his performance in Cast Away
, but with a few notable exceptions (his conversation with Maguire in the roadside diner; another conversation with Michael Jr. in the restaurant, where he strikes a bargain with his “partner” for $200 dollars) this lighter touch is absent. This performance was more along the lines of his work in Saving Private Ryan
. Also, Tom Hanks is not particularly menacing, I saw determination up there on the screen, but no menace. If Tom Hanks wants to play the Everyman as a sympathetic, vengeful anti-hero, he may do well to study Jimmy Stewart’s Western collaborations with Anthony Mann, like Winchester ‘73
and The Naked Spur
. Now that is moral conflict. Paul Newman lights up the screen whenever he is on camera, initially playing John Rooney as an irascible scamp, which is really a facade for a steely resolve, then a lapse into disappointed catatonia, and finally utter resignation to his death. Personally, I think everyone was as resigned to their fates as I was resigned to how the movie turned out, as I waited in my seat for the expected deaths of each major character. Jennifer Jason Leigh is wasted, though she proves once again that she looks great in period costume and make-up (though that was already proven in such films as The Hudsucker Proxy
and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
), and her short appearances in the movie seem to serve two main functions: look lovingly upon her family, or look worriedly upon her family. Jude Law was an interesting character, the slightly balding, yellow-teethed Weegee-esque crime photographer/hitman; now he was menacing. Did he steal the movie, like his supporting performance in AI: Artificial Intelligence
? No, I don’t think so, it’s just that his scenes involved some gunfights, which were a lot livelier than the rest of the film. Stanley Tucci was good as the cooly objective Frank Nitti, as was Dylan Baker as the simpering mob accountant Rance. The kids, besides looking like brothers, were bland and uninteresting.
I sat in my seat most of the time fairly disinterested, though my interest did pick up when during the gunfight scenes, especially the gun fight between Maguire and Sullivan in Rance’s hotel room, or more correctly the build-up, with the teletype machine’s clacking covering up the warning honks from his son, as a determined, menacing Maguire, with a shotgun barely hidden underneath his trench coat, stalks his prey. Of course, this scene, like much of the gunfight scenes is marred by some arty pretensions: the execution of Finn with the slow-motion photography, the three cut-outs when Maguire suffocates his still alive photography suspect, the shafts of light emanating from the blast holes in the wall, the mirror shot revealing the dead Connor in his bathtub, even though the camera stopped in the next room and gazed upon the execution through the door frame. Then there is Hanks’s death in a very, very bright, white room, it made the reds really stand out. I did like the shoot out outside of O’Neils pub, the muzzle flashes of the tommy gun in the darkness at the end of the street, as Rooney’s bodyguards are mowed down in slow-motion in the rain. It was one of the only interesting turn of events in the movie, and I liked the decision to go on without the sounds of gunfire, but too bad they substituted the atrocious score instead. (I shall call scores of this type Oscar-strings).
The only scenes I really felt came alive, where the dinner scene between Hanks and Law, as they lied to each other, playacting, sizing each other up. The only other scenes that I liked was when Hanks was trying to teach his son how to drive, and then the montage of bank robberies. These scenes were played with a lighter touch, and it had the running joke of Michael Jr.’s inept driving skills. It also looked like they were having fun. Hey slap some banjo music on these scenes and you got something out of Bonnie and Clyde
Pretty much, once John Rooney was killed, the film played itself out the way I expected, and I just sat there and waited for Maguire to appear at the lakeside house in Perdition. Actually, I thought it would have been more interesting if Michael Jr. had shot Maguire instead of his father, but then Mendes would have a messier, morally ambiguous message, instead of his nice, neat bow (and how did the kid avoid the draft for WW2, if this was the last time he touched a gun; now, this is what I was thinking about instead of the events on the screen, so let’s just say my mind wandered). I also pretty much saw the return to the peaceful, rural farm couple as preordained, especially, when, in their short scenes, virtually adopted the young Michael. I got the distinct feeling that this ending was contrived for the film, with Michael’s voice-over eulogy for his father, and the silhouette of Michael walking to his new future with the elderly farm couple. Interestingly, I was in a bookstore right after the screening and saw the original graphic novel. At the end of the graphic novel, Michael Sr. still dies in Perdition (and by the way Aunt Sara was brutally murdered, the film never touches upon what happened to her), but Michael Jr. is forced to go to a Catholic orphanage, and interestingly enough, becomes a priest. The final panel is of Father Michael taking confessions. I think I would have liked that ending better.