Road to Perdition (2002)

D: Sam Mendes
S: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman

Director Sam Mendes' follow-up to American Beauty is a handsome and tasteful adaptation of the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Loosely inspired by the long-running Japanese action adventure serial Lone Wolf and Cub, the story follows 1930s mob hitman Tom Hanks and his son Tyler Hoechlin as they travel the roads of Depression-era America with death on their heels. Hanks is on the run from former boss and surrogate father Paul Newman whose natural son Daniel Craig has set him up for a fall in order to cover up his own double-dealing. Though this group comprises the upper echelons of a primarily Irish gang, the strings are pulled by Chicago, with Stanley Tucci playing Capone's enforcer Frank Nitti, who sets sicko assassin Jude Law on the fugitives with the order to kill. Not content to simply fly from danger, Hanks takes a proactive course of action to hit Chicago where it hurts in the hope that they will put pressure on Newman to give up Craig. Apart from revenge, his goal is to ensure the protection of his son, whom he hopes will not follow in his footsteps.

A mishmash of fairly typical generic elements, the plot is serviceable enough as pulp fare goes. Thematically, the concern with family, honour, and morality is also more or less what is usual, and the film follows the patrimonial line of The Godfather and Goodfellas in its exploration of the social psychology of the American gangster. The film is all about fathers and sons, with Newman expounding upon the theme during a funeral scene near the beginning and the relationship between Hanks and Hoechlin developing slowly throughout the story via a series of ritualised moments of masculine succession through which father and son begin to truly understand each other.

The only problem is that the film is not directed as if it were pulp. Road to Perdition takes itself awfully seriously for a film with this little depth. Though it is beautifully photographed by the late Conrad Hall, there is a lot less to it than meets the eye. Painstakingly composed images of rain-drenched streets, dusty highways, seedy motel rooms, lavish hotels and parlours, and the streets of 1930s Chicago actually do little more than provide a backdrop. Though there is some consistency in the symbolic visualisation of alienation, with many scenes striking a contrast between the lonely figures of Hanks and son against the world which seems either uninterested or too interested in them, this is really all there is to it. Framed as a reminisence by Hoechlin's character, the story, too generic to surprise or intrigue, merely trundles along making its tired points with clarity and care. It never rises above the sum of its parts to create something altogether special, never breaking out of the limited perspective of a son upon his father which could, perhaps have gone further if the son himself had been more interesting. There are none of the mind games of Frailty here, merely a standard nostalgic lookback in which even the Depression is drained of its social context by the dogged personalisation of the story.

It is clear that Mendes and Hall have decided to trust the image to carry the weight of the film, drawing their inspiration from the graphic novel itself. There is comparatively little dialogue, most of which is clichéd to the point of parody but handled with the gravitas of a Sunday sermon by a game cast. The problem is that the images are essentially repetitious, and in spite of a half-hearted attempt to raise questions about the exploitation of images of violence by making Law's character a professional photographer who 'shoots the dead', they are more or less exactly what you would expect from a middle of the road genre film. Road to Perdition seems to want to be a successor to The Godfather when it really has more in common with Last Man Standing. Though there are some good moments, including a shoot-out in the rain which admirably desensationalises the action in favour of getting to the dramatic core, there is no subtlety to any of it. Nothing unexpected happens to these characters, whose reactions are equally predictable and points of view too trite. Its study of character and environment does not resonate with any larger concept of society and though well-meaning the film is really rather superficial. It works best if thought of as a fable, but most fables are short and to the point. Road to Perdition agonises over its slim, aphoristic homily for far longer than it needs to, and though it does not become boring (largely because of the taste and skill with which it has been put together), it never touches the soul either.

The real problem with the film is that it seems to expect more of itself than was reasonable under the circumstances and invites the audience to share its anticipation. Dripping with Oscar winners and nominees behind and before the cameras, trading on the success of as recent a success as American Beauty and being justifiably certain of a crowd-pleasing 'serious message', its makers probably presumed it would hit hard and last long in the memory. Unfortunately, in spite of Hall's truly lustrous camerawork, there is nothing very striking here, and genre fans have many fine choices from the classic and the more contemporary era to choose from to pick a favourite. Road to Perdition is unlikely to resonate with anyone but the younger demographic, who may well be its ideal audience. Everyone else has seen this type of thing before, and competent and all as this particular attempt at telling the same story may be, it just isn't worth getting excited about.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.

Note: The Region 2 DVD features several deleted scenes, some of which expand briefly on underused Jennifer Jason Leigh and one of which features Anthony La Paglia as Al Capone. It also carries a reasonably good 'making of' and a director's commentary.