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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Road to Perdition (2002)

* * *

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman

So beautiful and yet so lacking. Road to Perdition is a handsome and stately film, but one that never really seems to come alive. At times it feels reminiscent of The Godfather films, but while Coppola’s masterful saga brought the audience in, Sam Mendes’ film seems determined to keep us out. We’re meant to stand back from this film and admire it, rather than become absorbed in it and live it. I do admire parts of Road to Perdition, but ultimately never felt very invested in it.

To boil it down to its most basic elements, the film is about fathers and sons and isolation. The fathers and sons theme is obvious and often overtly addressed. The theme of isolation is more obliquely alluded to through the film’s mis en scene and one line from Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks). “This isn’t our home anymore,” he informs his son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), “it’s just an empty building.” This line is specifically referring to the murder of Sullivan’s wife and younger son, but it applies to scenes throughout the film, as characters are constantly situated in the middle of a great emptiness. The indoor sets seem vast and cavernous; the outdoor sets seem impossibly spacious. The art direction provides us with an indication of the unspoken things the characters are feeling, but it also underscores the basic problem with the film, which is that it is ultimately quite hollow. There doesn’t seem to be anything at the core of this story; it’s all surface.

The film is seen largely through the eyes of Michael Jr., who spends the first 12 or so years of his life emotionally distanced from his father, but gets to know him over the course of about six weeks in the worst possible circumstances. Curious about what it is, exactly, that his father does for John Rooney (Paul Newman), Michael sneaks into the back of his father’s car to see for himself and witnesses a murder. Rooney’s son, Connor (Daniel Craig), who instigated the act, decides that Michael can’t be trusted not to talk and takes it on himself to eliminate the threat, which results in the deaths of Michael’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger brother, but not Michael himself. There is a great moment when Michael approaches his house and sees Connor standing in the window and the film switches to Connor’s perspective and we see that he’s only looking at his own reflection. Later we learn that he doesn’t even realize that he’s killed the wrong son.

Mike and Michael go on the run, robbing banks of mob money and bonding in the process. Michael feels that his father always favored his younger brother, but this isn’t so. Mike simply saw a lot of himself in Michael and it worried him. In a similar vein, Mike is like a son to John, who took him in as a boy, gave him a means to support his family, and treats that family as if it were his own. John sees a lot of himself in Mike and has a warmer relationship with him than he does with his biological son, who he sees as a bungler and a disappointment. Connor is essentially an overgrown child who pouts his way through most of the story and is determined to make everyone else pay for his own mistakes. However, when it comes down to it and Mike gets proof that Connor has been stealing from his father, blood proves to be thicker than water. It has all the elements of Greek tragedy, save and except for the happy (well, happy-ish) ending.

Hanks is obviously playing against type here, though as killers go Mike is a fairly nice one; he always looks very sorry about what it is that he has to do. It is not an entirely successful performance; the only times when he seems really at ease in the role is in scenes with Hoechlin as the relationship between father and son begins to thaw. To be fair, I think this is less a problem with Hanks than it is with the fact that characters feel very locked into the turnings of the plot. The only actor who truly gets around this is Newman, whose two final exchanges with Hanks are electrifying.

To be clear, there’s nothing about Road to Perdition that I think is particularly “bad,” exactly, it’s just that it feels very stiff and very formal. It can’t be denied that the film has moments of brilliance and is at times wholly engrossing, but there’s a lot of affectation at play in the way that it’s constructed. If the film never relaxes, how can the audience?


The Mad Hatter said...

It's been a little while since I watched this one, but I do remember being quite taken by the lyrical quality of the violence. Like you said, it was very evocative of THE GODFATHER.

Gotta be honest - for how stunningly well this film was photographed, it's the sort of movie I could actually watch on mute.

Great choice!

Norma Desmond said...

Agreed. The photography is beautiful, but the rest of the film isn't on quite the same level.