Over the years, there have been so many films centering on parent-child relationships that it seemed as if the well had finally run dry on the genre. After all, how many cinematic variations can there be on the topic without becoming a cliched, been-there-done-that affair? Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, "Road to Perdition" is one of the most genuinely felt and honest portrayals of a father-son relationship put on film, and goes to prove that, at the very least, the final word on the subject has yet to be spoken. For every father and son (or every mother and daughter, etc.) there is in the world, there is a highly personal and, yet, widely relatable story to be told. Family relations is not a new motif for director Sam Mendes, whose debut feature, "American Beauty
," was the best film of 1999 and the Academy Award winner for Best Picture. The scope in which "Road to Perdition" is made in is smaller and more intimate, but, in its own way, hits just as unshakably close to home.
Set in Chicago, circa 1931, 12-year-old Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) lives a seemingly Norman Rockwell existence with his happy familyfather Michael (Tom Hanks), mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and younger brother Peter (Liam Aiken). Intrigued by the apocryphal work his father does for his powerful, highly regarded boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), Michael Jr. decides to secretly follow him one night on a business call. He is thoroughly disturbed and horrified when he witnesses the cold-blooded murder of a man. When he is caught spying on them, Sullivan assures Rooney and his own son, Connor (Daniel Craig), that Michael Jr. will not expose their profession. For hired hitmen whose very lives are on the line, Sullivan's word simply is not good enough.
The unpredictable and occasionally shocking plot developments that follow, which have thankfully not been telegraphed in the trailers and television ads, is best left to be discovered on your own. What can be said is a tragedy occurs that shatters the lives of the entire family, leading Sullivan, a man who recognizes the sins he has committed in his life and accepts them, to fear for Michael's fate, both in this world and the next.
Aside from the sparklingly conceived father-son bond that finds its way to the core of the story, "Road to Perdition" is a lurid, downbeat, meticulously executed revenge tale, and a triumph for the eyes, courtesy of Conrad L. Hall's ("American Beauty
") sumptuous, beautifully haunting cinematography, and Dennis Gassner's authentically represented production design. A bead of sweat nervously trickling down a character's temple; a heavy rainstorm amid a snowy landscape; and an almost poetic, slow-motion sequence of gunfire and murder are just a sampling of the unforgettable images Hall and Mendes have cooked up in presenting a story where the use of visuals is every bit as important as dialogue in digging to the roots of the characters. A rare motion picture with both a gorgeously rendered style and a multilayered, heartfelt character study, "Road to Perdition" is noir filmmaking at its peak.
In surely one of his darkest, most uncompromising roles to date, Tom Hanks (2000's "Cast Away
") can add yet another remarkably effective performance to his much-lauded resume. Hanks' work is subtle and his character underplayed, but the power he holds cannot be denied, as a man whose decisions are finally causing his life, and that of his family, to implode. Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin, as Michael Sullivan Jr., delivers the kind of assured, yet unaffected acting that, hopefully, will not be lost as he grows older and garners more experience in performing.
As John Rooney, whose relationship with his own son is strained and whose life is also at a moralistic and fatalistic crossroad, Paul Newman (1999's "Message in a Bottle
") hasn't had this weighty of a role in years. His every moment onscreen confirms what a bold and emphatic talent he still is. In a smaller, but no less extraordinary, turn, Jude Law (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
") plays Maguire, also known as "The Reporter," an unrelenting undercover assassin who likes to photograph his handiwork after the fact.
The extreme violence and unflinching blood present in "Road to Perdition" makes a startling impact and, no doubt, tests the boundaries of the R rating, but it is wholeheartedly necessary. The majority of the characters within the story are killers, and director Mendes does not shy away from viewing his heavy subject matter head-on.
Credit screenwriter David Self (1999's "The Haunting
"), also, in recognizing that at the heart of every great tale is something everyone should be able to relate to. The urgency Sullivan feels in warding his son, whom he loves more than anything in the world, away from a life of harsh cruelty and endless crime is done with a thoughtfully poignant hand that avoids easy sentiment.
The concluding scenes of "Road to Perdition" are its trickiest, both technically and subjectively, and Mendes pulls them off with the assuredness of a veteran who has been making movies for decades, rather than that of a novice only on his sophomore directing effort. With the final line of dialogue, delivered ever so eloquently by Michael Jr. about how he responds when asked if his father was a good man, Mendes sums up a universal notion that is as stirringly true as any statement that could have possibly been concocted on the subject. As with the lingering effect of "American Beauty
," "Road to Perdition" has an underlyingly hopeful current running throughout, but at its soul is one of an impossible heartbreak that can never be fully mended.
©2002 by Dustin Putman