Road to Perdition
November 27, 2003
Starring: Tom Hanks, Rob Maxey, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tyler Hoechlin, Liam Aiken, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Craig Spidle, Ian Barford, Stephen P. Dunn, Paul Turner, Kathleen Keane, Jude Law,
Road To Perdition is a curious beast. It’s polished, poetic and, in some scenes, pretty darn exceptional. It won an Oscar for the late Conrad Hall’s drop dead gorgeous cinematography and the critics lapped it up, even if the public were divided. Yet for all its grandeur and American beauty, there’s something distinctly lacking here.
The problem with setting a gangster movie during the depression era of the 1930s is that you have bleak characters, bleak weather and a bleak story, which is Road to Perdition’s achilles heel. Sure, every frame is a work of art, and it will no doubt be poured over by film-students for years to come, and rightly so, but that can’t make up for a predictable script and slow pace.
The film begins with Michael Sullivan junior riding his bike home through the snow and arriving home to witness his father (Hanks) pull out a gun in the same way a normal man would pull out his wallet at the end of a long day at the office. There’s something different about Mike’s dad. So, his interest awakened, the boy follows his father on a job that ends in bloodshed. When he’s caught outside, Hanks knows he’s seen too much and his boss’s son Conner (Daniel Craig) can’t trust the boy to keep a secret.
So on the run they go, robbing banks to get revenge when Rooney (Newman) refuses to give up Conner after he murders Hank’s wife. “Natural law,” he laments. “Sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” Against his better judgement, he hires a hitman to track down Hanks and put an end to everything. Enter Maguire (Jude Law), a photographer who shoots people before and after they’re dead with gun and camera respectively.
And that’s the meat of the story. For a two hour movie, David Self’s screenplay has maybe half an hour of gorme’ steak, but the rest is recycled spam. But we forgive him because of Mendes’ precise direction and Conrad Hall’s camerawork. Jennifer Jason Leigh (one of the best actresses of her generation) is wasted here as Hank’s wife, and most of her role ended up on the cutting room floor (the deleted scene on the DVD where she enters the kitchen to a stony reception is wonderfully underplayed).
Newman is commanding, but, really, when isn’t he? So it’s left to Hanks to carry the show and he gets ro relish playing against type. No references to boxes of chocolates or slobbering police dogs here. Hell, the man even sweats on cue, according to Mendes. His character is distant from his son at first but through the course of the story they have to work together and the bank robbery montage is the only light-hearted section in the whole movie, with Mike jnr as the getaway (learner) driver. Hanks and Law’s conversation in the diner is a stand-out, as is the poetic one-take shootout in the rain at the end.
Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mendes include several with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mike jnr’s gun obsession that got lost in the theatrical cut and more of Hanks talking to the waitress at the diner. The making of documentary is okay, with interviews with producer, director and the late Conrad Hall, but the best thing is the feature director commentary with Mendes, who reveals little CGI tricks you’d never even notice if he hadn’t said anything. There are also decent biogs for all the main players and the crew.
Road To Perdition is a gorgeous movie (damnit, how many times have you heard that?) but it’s no American Beauty. The best way to describe it is like walking into an art gallery and seeing an incredible painting at the other end of the room that you instantly love, but when you get closer, you find it’s just a swirl of colours on a cheap canvas.
Almost a classic, but not quite. Looking forward to film three, Sam.