Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 11, 2002
Road to Perdition\r\nStarring Tyler Hoechlin, Tom Hanks, and Paul Newman. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by David Self, based on Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel. Rated R.\r\n
Children of the Damned

Director, star, and audience all lose something on the Road to Perdition.


Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning American Beauty wasn’t close to being the best of a great year for movies (1999), but nonetheless it was a striking cinematic debut from a prominent British theater director. His filmmaking skill and a formidable cast have made his second film, Road to Perdition, one of this year’s most anticipated movies. Well, cool your jets, ladies and gentlemen. This good-looking but sententious gangster film is a large-scale bore.

Tom Hanks stars as Michael Sullivan, a trusted lieutenant of John Rooney (Paul Newman), who runs organized crime in an unnamed Midwestern city for the Chicago syndicates in 1931. Twelve-year-old Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) venerates his father until the day when his curiosity about his dad’s job leads him to hide in the back of a car and witness his father gunning down a bunch of mobsters. From that point, the boy knows too much for the crime bosses to rest easy. Acting on his own, Rooney’s son Connor (Daniel Craig) tries to eliminate both the senior and junior Sullivans, but he murders Michael’s wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger son Peter (Liam Aiken) instead. With killers on their trail, the Sullivans must make their way to a town called Perdition — there’s an overly metaphoric detail for you.

Two key members of American Beauty’s production team — cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and composer Thomas Newman — return for this film. They encourage the director to be tasteful, and that tendency definitively defeats him here. Mendes can’t resist the urge to film the climactic shootout in slow motion during a downpour on a nighttime street, with the soundtrack completely silent except for Newman’s Satie-esque piano music and with the camera executing a majestic sweep over the mobsters as they’re riddled with bullets. At such times, his cinematic style becomes self-parody. The movie’s final scene, besides being predictable in the extreme, bears a discouraging resemblance to the end of American Beauty. It also takes place in a redemptively white room, and the décor is a ham-handed visual touch coming at the end of a movie that’s largely cloaked in gray.

Mendes’ scrupulous visual sense goes too easily with his liking for platitudinous scripts about families. American Beauty was rightly criticized for its facile characterizations and liberal prejudices, but much of that came from Alan Ball’s shallow, though clever, writing. This movie has a different screenwriter in David Self, but his work is just as shallow, and awfully Self-serious, without Ball’s redeeming sense of humor. The movie’s lousy with the theme of fathers and sons, with Michael bonding with Michael Jr., and old Rooney slighting his own son in Michael’s favor. Yet its treatment of these filial relationships is treacly and simplistic. Michael Jr. gets to know his father as a man while they run for their lives, and there’s no complicated emotional fallout from his discovery that his dad kills people for a living. In a voiceover, the boy concludes, “Some people say Michael Sullivan was a decent man, and others say he was no good at all. I say he was simply my father.” First of all, eww. Second, that’s supposed to be the big insight that ends the film, and it falls catastrophically flat.

Even if the material had been stronger, the two central actors would’ve failed it. Hoechlin gives an unremarkable performance, and the role of a mob enforcer is every bit as wrong for Tom Hanks as his wispy mustache. He can’t make Michael’s conflicting loyalties dramatic. He doesn’t have a killer’s hardness, and he’s even less convincing as an emotionally distant, intimidating father. His voice is too high and thin, and his onscreen presence isn’t large enough. Sullivan turns into an avenging angel after losing his family, but Hanks is far from fearsome as he takes down his enemies. The role might have been good for Russell Crowe or perhaps Kevin Spacey, but not for an actor who’s so irreducibly a nice guy.

Newman succeeds exactly where Hanks fails. He creates a character capable of both grandfatherly warmth and a gangster’s ferocity. The latter surfaces in an unforgettable scene in which he humiliates Connor in front of their business associates. He’s awe-inspiring, too, in a scene where Rooney discovers Annie and Peter’s murders, and his face contorts with grief while he beats his son. Mendes’ talent for handling actors comes through in Stanley Tucci’s elegant turn as Al Capone’s lieutenant and in Dylan Baker’s effeminate accountant. As a hit man hired to rub out the elder Sullivan, Jude Law is a grinning death’s-head, happily photographing murder victims (not all of them his own) and drawing morbid doodles on a sketchpad while talking on the phone. His twistedness is a welcome relief from the cuddly main story.

Even so, he can’t stem the tide of cheap sentimentality that is Road to Perdition. The director was able to get away with prettifying his subject matter the last time, but the unleavened feel-good father-and-son story here exposes him. Only three years after emerging as a fresh voice in Hollywood, Sam Mendes looks well on his way to becoming old hat.

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