American Beauty director Sam Mendes soundly defeats the dreadedSophomore Jinx with his stunning second effort, the crime drama Road ToPerdition. Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Roadis a haunting, moving work of cinematic art for adults that will linger inthe memory long after its conclusion.
The film is set in Chicago, Illinois during the Great Depression. MichaelSullivan (Tom Hanks) is a loving, devoted family man who is also a hit manfor Irish Mob crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), a man who treats Michaellike a son. Although his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is aware of whatMichael does for work, his two sons, Peter (Liam Aiken) and Michael Jr.(Tyler Hoechlin), do not.
One rainy night, all that changes. Michael Jr.sneaks into his father’s car when he goes out on a job with Rooney’sunstable son Connor (Daniel Craig) and witnesses the duo gun down four menin cold blood. Afraid that the boy will talk about the incident, the Rooneysdecide to get rid of the Sullivans. Fate spares Michael Sr. and Jr.,allowing them to head off on a journey instigated by tragedy and fuelled byrevenge.
Mendes’ directing is every bit as good as it was three years ago withAmerican Beauty. Working from David Self’srichly layered and beautifully written screenplay adaptation, the directingexudes intelligence and confidence from the first scene to the last. AmericanBeauty introduced Sam Mendes to the cinematic world as a director with agreat vision and talent. Road To Perdition confirms both of those inabundance.
Hanks delivers a quietly distinct and studied turn as the cold-bloodedkiller attempting to connect with what is left of his family before it’s toolate. Newman infuses his Godfather-like role with dignity andempathy, while Jude Law is suitably creepy as the Weegee-like crimephotographer, Maguire, who moonlights as an assassin. Craig and StanleyTucci, as gangster Frank Nitti, are also standouts in supporting roles.
The biggest surprise in the cast comes from Tyler Hoechlin’s restrainedand naturalistic performance as Michael Jr.. Despite this being his firstrole, Hoechlin shows that he has what it takes to hold his own againstscreen vets such as Newman and Hanks. This is one actor to keep an eye on inthe future.
If there is a mis-step to be had anywhere in the film, it is the role ofAnnie Sullivan, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The character is slight andgives Leigh only about five minutes in total. Granted, Annie was in the graphicnovel even less than she is here, but if Mendes is going to bother gettingan actress as talented as Leigh, he ought to have given her a bit more to work with.
Thomas Newman, who composed the music for American Beauty, turnsin yet another low-key, beautiful score here. Conrad Hall, one of film’smost talented cinematographers, turns in what may be his best work to date.Despite the film’s drab and muted color palette, the beauty of Hall’sperfectly composed and designed photography shines through in every frame.It captures Dennis Gassner’s knockout production design; creating imagesthat will stay with you for quite some time.
To think of Road To Perdition simply as a gangster film isdismissive to the film’s makers. It does indeed pack quite a punch as a genrefilm and is easily the best since 1990′s Miller’s Crossing.
But thereis so much more beyond men in trench coats with Tommy Guns shooting it outin the wintry streets of Chicago presented here. It’s a deft examination ofhonour, betrayal and loyalty. It is also a moving story of reconciliationbetween parent and child that will hit home with everyone.
Road To Perdition is a road well worth travelling.