by DAVID KEYES
There is something strangely amiss about Sam Mendes' "Road
to Perdition" that prevents me from calling it one
of the year's best films, and I'm not even sure what that
one thing is. No, it's not the premise nor is it the resulting
story that builds from it. No, it's not the casting or the
acting. It certainly isn't the cinematography or film editing,
either; in fact, those two elements are so plausible and
effective here that it would be easy to justify the movie
getting major Oscar nominations. The more I think about
what so irked me about this interesting and well-crafted
drama, the more it frustrates. In either case, it's obvious
that when one sees this long-awaited vehicle starring Tom
Hanks and Paul Newman, chances are they will admire what
they see, even though they'll hardly be completely absorbed.
The movie's material is probably already familiar with
most of the target audience. Based on a graphic novel by
Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, "Road to
Perdition" is a father/son story set amidst the well-hidden
but dangerous atmosphere of organized crime in Chicago,
circa 1931. The story is centered on Michael Sullivan (Tom
Hanks) and his son Michael Jr., who are more like passive
acquaintances rather than relatives to each other until
a life-shattering event triggers instincts into high-gear
and forces them to rediscover one another for the sake of
surviving. As both a character study and period piece, the
movie is rich in its detail and subtle in its delivery.
And yet as the lushly engaging tale unfolds and takes us
down several different roads, you can't help but feel that
the journey is missing a crucial road stop.
Hanks plays the at-first-mysterious Michael Sullivan, a
sulky and distant family man who has two sons, Peter and
Michael Jr., and a lovely wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) waiting
at home for him. As the movie opens, the whole family hops
into the family car to attend the wake of a recently-deceased
family friend, whose death is somewhat of a fundamental
mystery to those who are intrigued by it. "May he get
to heaven an hour before the devil finds out he's dead,"
announces his former boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), the
apparent glue that holds all these families and friends
together. Later, when the deceased's brother makes a brief
speech in memory of his sibling, too much liquor lowers
his guard and he begins rambling on about how Rooney owns
the whole town. Quickly, he is silenced and sent home away
from the gathering before anything else is said.
The root of the story is not in Michael himself, but rather
his older son, Michael Jr., who watches curiously from a
doorway as his father packs away a gun after getting home
from work, wondering exactly what kinds of business his
dear daddy is involved in. All that is ever said of the
inquiry is that his father owes a lifetime of debts to old
John Rooney, the seemingly harmless old man whom he is employed
with. But Jr. wonders with further angst at what that employment
actually involves. The boy's curiosity leads to him hiding
in the back seat of his father's car when he and Rooney's
son, Connor (Daniel Craig) go out to "take care of
business." What Michael Jr. sees as a result provides
enough jolt to shatter any pretense he had about his father,
and when Mr. Sullivan realizes what his son saw, the dangerous
life he leads turns right back around and bites him.
The movie was directed by Sam Mendes, whose claim to fame
thus far has been one single other directorial effort named
"American Beauty." That film, needless to say,
is garnered as a masterpiece by its critics, and although
it isn't a movie lasting enough to truly be called a classic,
it assuredly had some kind of impact. Like that endeavor,
"Road to Perdition" is a quiet, refined and rather
staggering triumph in script writing, in which only bare
necessities are conveyed to harvest a positive response
from the viewer. The material is never overblown nor heavily
stressed, and when mere syllables are uttered between characters
during crucial scenes, we understand why less is more.
From an actor's standpoint, "Road to Perdition"
is not simply well cast, but brilliantly acted by a large
number of talented stars. Hanks is solid as a father who
doesn't realize how caught up he is in fate until it's too
late to turn back, while the young actor Tyler Hoechlin
is endearing as a kid whose curiosity leads to both danger
and discovery. Newman, meanwhile, is mesmerizing and unforgettable
as a compassionate Irish mob boss, and Daniel Craig, who
plays Rooney's son, is reaffirming as a deadly man whose
outer shell will crumble if he isn't careful about his steps.
Ironically, Jude Law is actually the finest thespian this
movie has to offer; playing a twisted photographer of cadavers
who is hired by Frank Nitti to eliminate Sullivan, he is
merciless, shallow, vindictive and disturbing, qualities
which Law seems to embody so well since he was in "The
Talented Mr. Ripley" a few years back.
But what is the movie truly trying to say? Does it want
us to reassess the relationships we have with our fathers
or sons? Does it want us to change the potential outcome
of our lives? Does it want us to wrestle with personal destiny?
Or better yet, does it want us to do all these things? Hopefully
the answer will come easier to you than it did to me.