Road to Perdition
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

The title promises the theatrics of Biblical retribution; the congress of Oscar annointees ensures middlebrow appeal; the summer release date signals reverse-prestige marketing and the inevitable mass media genuflection. If little else, Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition isn't shy about its sprawling, commercial ambition. Strange, then, that as a work of art, its overwhelming tone is one of muted feeling, of passion repressed, and of tears withheld. A story about fathers and sons and the sins they commit, the movie purports to be a solemn affair. Its depiction of '30s gangland Chicago is both beautiful and sickly, like a consumptive courtesan on her deathbed, only here the illness is Oedipal anxiety. "Sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers," one character meaningfully intones. The generational struggles he predicts don't arrive with gunfire so much as they seep through the bones of its victims, strangling them from the inside out like a silent cancer. Mendes' stylized melancholia is impressive -- the pervasive rainfall is a particularly evocative touch -- but it can't conceal what is essentially the movie's big, thumping American heart. Periodically invoking Ma, Pa, and apple pie as talismans against the darkness, Road to Perdition is presciently mindful of our nation's current state of patriotic fervor. No stranger to warped domesticity (not to mention blatant iconography), Mendes again finds himself in the two-faced position of having to embrace the American family while furtively stabbing it in the back. (Mendes also directed American Beauty.)

Perhaps it's fitting that the movie's first big scene is part funeral, part family reunion. On a wintry Illinois night, mobsters assemble at a rural Illinois mansion to say goodbye to one of their own. In this predominantly Irish Catholic town, beer and tears flow with equal passion; couples break out into post-eulogy jigs; and children cuddle up to mafia patriarch John Rooney (Paul Newman). The scene unavoidably evokes the opening passages of The Godfather in both its patrician view of mob culture and its oddly detached gaze, loving but tinged with skepticism. Mendes heightens that detachment by filming it from the perspective of a 12 year old boy, Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), whose father, Michael Sr. (Tom Hanks), is Rooney's most reliable strongman. Sullen and nearly mute, the boy observes everything passively from his low-angled vantage point. His concentration on isolated details -- the drip of melting ice, a spontaneous scuffle, a momentary gaze from his mother -- gives the scene the exquisite feel of a filmed memoir. What people say isn't so important (which explains why much of the dialogue is flat and functional) as those pivotal moments of innocence interrupted, typically prefaced in memoirs by the phrase, "It was then that I realized "

For Michael Jr., that moment comes when he witnesses his father take part in the execution of a fellow gangster. Fearful that his son has put himself in danger, Michael Sr. bundles him into the car and flees for Chicago, Rooney's men in hot pursuit. There are gun battles, some of them quite bloody, but the Sullivan's flight is never played for visceral thrills. Quite the opposite: the action is carried out with a kind of morbid efficiency and there are no ironic laughs, or sadistic smirks. No one is getting any pleasure from it. In this respect, Road to Perdition feels refreshingly square, almost post-modern. Bloodshed is what it is, nothing more or less; Sullivan's protection of his son is an instinctual reaction devoid of rationalization; and Rooney's decision to go after the man he has treated as his own son is clearly a difficult choice, but one that he forcibly wrenches from his soul without so much as flinching. Who would have thought Mendes capable of making something so emotionally primitive, especially after the self-consciously clever American Beauty? Without the aid of an ironic filter, he finds unexpected power in unvarnished sentiment.

And terror is the most direct emotion, as we've all come to know. There is no image more terrifying than the silhouetted figures of Rooney's henchmen, enshrouded in overcoats and masked by big-brimmed fedoras. They suggest avenging grim reapers summoned from Hell. Sullivan does too, particularly to his son, whose relationship with him has been governed by fear and imposed ignorance. The brief depiction of their family life early in the movie hints at an unseen malignancy. Young Michael is cowed by a mysterious force; he's intimidated equally by his homework and the shadow of his father. Their house, all dark rooms and ominous hallways, resembles a vacated mausoleum. And the mere presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the small role of Sullivan's wife casts its own peculiar chill. The air of inevitable death is enhanced by cinematographer Conrad Hall who has chosen to shoot almost exclusively in ashen tones -- the tones of a corpse drained of its blood. When Sullivan and Rooney have their final confrontation late in the movie, the malignancy becomes full blown, and as if on cue, Newman's face hardens into a death mask. Filmed with no sound except for Thomas Newman's minimalist score, the scene is deliberately anti-climactic in the way it revels in the beauty of machinegun fire on a rain soaked night. But it's the beauty one finds in a requiem: haunting, delirious, and unremittingly mournful.

So everything's decaying and dying; but from what? Mendes is at pains to explain the source of his funereal obsession. He's more interested in turning it into compelling visual art, and he succeeds (with the aid of production designer Dennis Gassner and costumer Albert Wolsky), but the results can feel like a rote exercise. Jude Law's freelance assassin, for instance, is an inspired physical creation: a misshapen golem with yellow teeth and rotting fingernails, he is malevolence incarnate. Law nearly mimes his performance, contorting his body into hideous postures as he pursues Sullivan and his son across the Midwestern plains. His penchant for photographing his victims adds another layer of visual detachment: murder becomes an art within an art. When he ambushes Sullivan in a hotel suite, or corners him in a diner, there's never a sense of real human life in danger. The violence has the supernatural quality of medieval demon combat. We watch in rapt fascination, like we're witnessing mythology in the making, but we don't flinch when Law gets a bullet in the face because we know he's not human and that he'll resurface sooner or later, angrier and more powerful, bearing his disfigurement like a holy wound. Nor do we feel much for Sullivan when he receives a near-fatal gunshot wound and is forced to go into hiding. Bloodshed is his business, after all, and he treats the accompanying mental anguish as little more than occupational hazard, and eventually, so do we. Granite jawed and flint eyed, Sullivan seems to have lived his life in preparation for his ultimate offing. For him, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Playing sinister for the first time in his career, Hanks invites us to mistrust him, but it's a specious invitation. What he (and the studio heads) really wants is for us to love him in that grudging way that boys love their fathers. As Sullivan and son evade various pursuers, the movie brightens from pale grey to pale yellow, alerting us that bonding is nigh. But we knew it was coming before the movie began. The presence of Hanks' name above the title says everything. Expect the affirmation of family values, it says. Expect night to turn to day, and boy to man. At least they're being honest: Road to Perdition makes that irreversible turn down Norman Rockwell Lane in its second half, force feeding us images of paternal thaw along the way. Sullivan indoctrinates junior in the methods of bank robbery (passing on the family business), shares a slice of American pie, and engages in a heart-to-heart. Hanks' performance may be a fake, but it's a beautiful one. He divests himself of all contemporary mannerism, reducing his normally hyper body language to spare movement. But underneath, the malignant force is still there, churning away at his innards. His reconciliation with his son, we sense, is the final act of a dying man.

Michael Jr. senses it too, which may explain why he is too stunned to speak. Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin displays even more control than Hanks, but the movie doesn't trust him. It thrusts an unwieldy coming-of-age lesson on his slight shoulders, only to take it back by making dad pull the final trigger. Thus is the son spared a moral decision, and innocence is prolonged once again. The movie is at its most Spielbergian in these moments of sanctified boyhood. Mendes has yet to emerge from the shadow of his acknowledged mentor, and in its inability to sustain a bleak vision of the world, Road to Perdition bears the genetic mark of a Spielberg production. Fathers and sons indeed. The screenplay by David Self (adapting the graphic novel of the same name by Max Allan Collins) feels torn in its allegiance to subversive comic book lore and mainstream onanism. The mainstream wins in the end, of course, but not before Mendes puts it through a period of enforced mourning. The unremitting rainfall -- tears of absolution -- eventually washes away everyone's sins.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Dreamworks
Movie Web site: Road to Perdition



Photo credits: © 2002 Dreamworks SKG. All rights reserved.