Road to Perdition
Director: Sam Mendes. Cast: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker, Ciarán Hinds. Screenplay: David Self (based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner).

A lot of hype to be disbelieved on this one. Perhaps you've heard the hullabaloo that Road to Perdition comprises Tom Hanks' big thespian stretch, that America's silver-screen paterfamilias is finally exploring dark territory, abetted by Real Artists who can reliably carry him there without compromise?

I came into Road to Perdition rooting for it, even though those "special bond between fathers and sons" taglines in the trailers sounded unsettlingly trite, weighing heavily in the direction of sentiment when that was precisely the terrain that both Hanks and director Sam Mendes seemed most intent on escaping. But Road to Perdition, no matter how you cut it, is a terrible and dishonest movie, craven in its impersonation of grief, self-scrutiny, and honor among thieves, incoherently structured, narcissistically transfixed by its own superficial panache in visualizing a story about who knows what. The film opens with young Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) staring out from a shoreline and asking in voice-over whether his father, Michael Sullivan (Hanks) was a good man. Young Michael asks us to be the judge, but this is exactly the sort of empty proposition that can sink a movie from the outset: not only must any straightforward case for Sullivan's "goodness" or "badness" seem morally reductive, but the very notion that film artistry or spectatorship is about morally evaluating the characters is already headed, so to speak, down its own wrong road.

This kind of frame-story has become a DreamWorks stock-in-trade of late—Saving Private Ryan, American Beauty, and Gladiator (remember that hand caressing the wheat stalks?) all introduce themselves with prologue shots or scenes, each inviting us to compare our first impression of a man with our concluding evaluations, after we have seen him endure war, torture, or at least suburban anomie. Ironically, this device worked best in Beauty, also directed by Mendes, since the retrovision set up by Lester's opening voice-over stoked audience interest even as it reflected Lester's own profound self-involvement...and also, Beauty smartly paired Lester's self-review with another framing device, the video footage of Jane Burnham, that brought into relief a very different story, with a much less neat beginning and ending. The interior reflections encasing Road to Perdition, by contrast, are arbitrary and weightless, presuming an interest in Michael Sullivan that the film never gives us reason to invest, and obfuscating by the end whether it is teenaged Michael Jr. or as a much older Mikey who is consumed by these inquiries—a dispute hardly incidental to the movie's concern with generation and nostalgia.

Amidst all this navel-gazing, a film lazes along about gangsters, family, and the melancholic wake of moral turpitude. In short, the two Michael Sullivans—essentially the adopted progeny of Paul Newman, whose biological son (played by Daniel Craig) is impetuous and unworthy of adoration—withstand so terrible an injustice from the hands that feed them that old notions of loyalty and retribution must be reexamined. Meanwhile, knowing that he may have enrolled himself on Sullivan's hit list, Newman and his cronies hire an apparently syphilitic corpse photographer named Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) to track and kill Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. All manner of other Damon Runyon types abound, including a mob protector named Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) and a duplicitous, fastidious, limp-wristed accounts manager called Alexander Rance (Dylan Baker) who so far represents 2002's coarsest entrant in the annual Cruel Stereotypes derby.

This is the gist of what story we are given. But Road to Perdition, as directed, scripted, and acted (in that order), hasn't a fraction of the artistic bravery to inhabit the zone of ethical lawlessness and bleak improvidence that it feigns at presenting. Newman savors the film's best line of dialogue when he admonishes Hanks, outraged at some recent murders, that "there are only murderers in this room, Michael!" and assures him that "none of us will ever see heaven." But this brief confrontation with the scenario's gravity is alleviated everywhere else by visual dodges and directorial caution. Think we're ever forced to see Tom Hanks kill anyone? Actually, no: we see a POV shot from Michael Jr.'s perspective between his father's feet, as bullet casings rain down from the top of the shot; we see flashes of yellow at the end of a dark alley, where we know Hanks is standing, as the people he's mowing down fall in silence to the ground; we see a bathroom mirror hung on a door swing slowly closed as Hanks exits a room, revealing the visual evidence of what he has perpetrated there; and we see only his face in close-up as he performs the movie's most trumped-up moment of execution, so that we are spared the sight of Hanks' finger on an actual trigger. (It helps in this instance that, as in the repugnant The Green Mile, the victim expresses gratitude at the idea of having Hanks assassinate him.)

A narrow and unsympathetic reader of these remarks will think I am a bloodthirsty filmgoer who demands to see the visceral particulars of every violent transaction in a film. Not only is this hardly the case, but what is at issue here is the unbelievable arrogance and hypocrisy—really the worst kind of star vanity—that informs a movie where a major star wants to play a hitman but is at pains at every discernible juncture to save us from the no-doubt devastating spectacle of him firing an actual gun. In some cases, these sorts of visual ellipticism help recontextualize the violence, so we aren't as focused on the literal killings as on their narrative and moral implications. But Road to Perdition is so lite on psychology and moral dimension (remember, our narrative voice is that of a least, we think), and so enamored instead of visual dazzle (mannered production design, excessive water imagery and gratuitous tracking zooms, natty suits for all the gunmen) that we are hardly to confuse Mendes and his crew with the "less-is-more" school of filmmaking.

Permanently handicapped by a refusal to see, much less show us, what is really going on among these contract-killer characters, the film is stuck stringing together close-up after close-up of Newman, Hanks, Craig, Hoechlin, and many others as they reflect with evident horror and regret on the deeds they have done. A new cinema made entirely of reaction shots: just face after face looking terrified and ruminative, as though mob life in Depression-era Chicago was not an epidemic of extortion and violence but an uninterrupted moral malaise in which normally avuncular hitmen felt so bad about what they'd been up to. And cinematographer Conrad Hall is so busy flattening all of his shots into graphic-novel 2D dimensions that the film's distinct separation from any known human reality is all the more palpable. Poor Jude Law—as every other character is stripped of the evidence of wrongdoing, he inherits all of it, not only disheveled but grotesque, not just diseased but psychopathic, not just sexually cruel but voyeuristically necrophiliac. Thematically, Road to Perdition is about universal human corruption, but from the looks of things, you'd think rich Paul Newman sat around all day mourning in a pew while sadistic working-class hobo photographers sucked the blood out of everyone in sight.

By the end, Road to Perdition is so jumbled and poseurish that you're less likely to wonder, "How did the creators of American Beauty sink to this?" than to venture, "Maybe American Beauty couldn't have been all that good, either." The films do engage much of the same material: generation gaps, masculine midlife crises, Oedipal slayings of the father that actually don't involve marrying the mother, because one pretty much wants to annihilate her, too. American Beauty, slick as it was, at least thematized the riddle that our most soul-shaking epiphanies may sometimes be the same old self-centered immaturity differently presented, and that the happy affluence which permits such shucking of responsibility also leads directly to hate, distrust, murderousness. Road to Perdition postulates murderousness everywhere—it doesn't attribute it to anything, except perhaps the desire to feed your sons (there are no daughters in this galaxy)—and thus paradoxically, the movie can't come to grips with those drives, can't see them in action, almost anywhere. As if, in 2002, America needed any more mass-cultural incentive to render tough ethical conundrums totally abstract at the very moment we pretended to confront them. Grade: D

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Supporting Actor: Paul Newman
Best Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Best Art Direction: Dennis Gassner; Nancy Haigh
Best Original Score: Thomas Newman
Best Sound: Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, and John Pritchett
Best Sound Effects Editing: Scott Hecker

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Paul Newman

Other Awards:
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction
Satellite Awards: Best Cinematography

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