Road to Perdition (DVD, 2003, DTS Widescreen) Reviews
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Road to Perdition (DVD, 2003, DTS Widescreen)

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Road to Perdition: Paved With Good Intentions

Jul 14, 2002 (Updated Jul 16, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Cinematography, directing, acting, production design, soundtrack--it's all so beautiful

Cons:A predictable plot, a nothing role for Jennifer Jason Leigh

The Bottom Line: Sam Mendes delivers another American beauty of a movie--a sublime meditation on fatherhood, disguised as a gangster flick.


Bogart. Cagney. Hanks.

Hanks? Tom “Nice Guy” Hanks?

Yes. In Road to Perdition, our generation’s Jimmy Stewart gets mean and cold-blooded as he attempts to “stretch” his apple-pie image. While he lacks some of the rat-a-tat-tat brutality of classic gangsters like Bogart and Cagney, Hanks slips into the role of a revengeful Depression-era hitman as easily as he does his other good-hearted characters. Henry Fonda did the same thing when he appeared as an ice-veined gunslinger in Once Upon a Time in the West. Like Fonda, Hanks wants to prove he can be good as a bad man.

It’s really not as sudden a shift as you might think. Hanks has walked on the dark side before. Remember his sometimes-bitter AIDS patient in Philadelphia? Or his control-freak FedEx employee in Cast Away? He performed dental surgery with an ice skate in that one, for God’s sake.

Still, despite the fact that Hanks splatters someone’s brains across a bathroom wall in one scene, it’s impossible for him to be bad all the way to the bone. It’s the eyes—the sincere, soulful gaze—that remind us Hanks is still Mr. Nice Guy, not Mr. Vice Guy. His heart isn’t entirely made of obsidian—there’s still room for remorse and pity. Those competing emotions are what makes Michael Sullivan such an interesting person to watch for two hours.

The taciturn family man with a steadfast wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh in a thankless role) and two sons (Tyler Hoechlin and Liam Aiken), Sullivan carries a briefcase to work every day. Inside that briefcase is a tommy gun and a typical day at the office might include gunning down a booze runner in debt to Chicago crime lord John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan has been Rooney’s top hitman for years; he’s part of the family—in fact, Rooney treats him better than he does his own son Connor (Daniel Craig), also a hot-blooded trigger-man.

Sullivan’s own sons know little about his work or what he does each night. “He goes on missions for Mr. Rooney…they’re very dangerous…that’s why he brings a gun,” Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) tells his younger brother. Young Michael finds out just how dangerous that line of work is when he witnesses a gangland execution and violence shatters the Sullivan household. Soon, father and son are on the run from Rooney’s other henchmen (much like Tom Cruise trying to stay one step ahead of his fellow cops in Minority Report). Violence looms in their future and the movie becomes a sort of twisted version of Take Your Son to Work Day. The two hit the road, and they’re traveling not just toward perdition but also redemption. Sullivan knows he’s already hell-bound, but it’s his earnest desire that his son avoids the same fate. Just as Sullivan is conflicted in his feelings toward his surrogate father, Rooney, he suddenly must confront a son he barely knows. There is a scene where he stands over his sleeping boy and gently, lovingly touches his head as if for the first time—which it probably is. “Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers,” Rooney says to Sullivan early in the movie. Maybe so, but sons are also there to soften hard assassins (see also Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in The Professional). In truth, this is a fable about fathers and sons, which only wears the mask of a gangster movie. The same could be said, I guess, for Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

The movie is directed by Sam Mendes whose American Beauty also chronicled what it means to be a father in an increasingly cynical world. Where that movie used bright, satirical strokes to get its message across, Road to Perdition is somber, subdued by Conrad Hall’s cinematography which casts everything in a light filtered through dark rain clouds. Sullivan wears a fedora, brim pulled down low so that half of his face—those soulful eyes—remains in shadow. The inscrutable mystery of fathers is at the heart of Road to Perdition and as Michael Jr. embarks on this six-week road trip with his father, he learns how to drive, brandish a gun, and—most importantly—probe beneath his father’s exterior. There are the inevitable bonding scenes, but they’re delivered with a restraint and intelligence that’s all too rare in movies. Road to Perdition calls to mind the lean cinematic poetry of Shane, also filled with complex fathers-and-guns issues.

Road to Perdition is admirably old-fashioned, starting with its title—Road to Hell just doesn’t carry the same weight and intensity. Mendes—and especially Hanks and Newman—moves the film ahead by inches, letting the story unfold at its own pace. Yet, there is not a boring moment in the entire movie, never a time when you cannot take your eyes off the screen—whether due to Hall’s rich photography that captures rain rolling off the brim of a hat with as much beauty as rose petals falling on Mena Suvari in Mendes’ other film; or due to the saying-much-with-little performances of Hanks and Newman. Either way, Road to Perdition immerses the viewer so completely in its rain-soaked world that it’s a shock to emerge from the theater and not see Model A’s motoring up the street, driven by glare-eyed men in fedoras.

Let’s be honest, Road to Perdition has a plot which predictably connects the dots. You know certain characters will die long before the bullets riddle their bodies. This is the movie’s one flaw, that it rarely veers from the course prescribed by seventy years of gangster films. David Self’s screenplay (based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins) is filled with dialogue which, when the mostly-quiet characters do speak, is ornately epic. “I despair of the human race,” philosophizes an otherwise simple-minded henchman. At another point, Rooney says, “There is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.” Sullivan comes back with, “Michael could.” The words have all the gravity of Scripture.

Where Road to Perdition succeeds, however, is in how Mendes creates a titanic, Biblical epic from such a simple story of fathers, sons and bullets. There are many memorable scenes in the film, but the one which stands out from the rest is one we’ve all seen a hundred times: a gangster and his pack of bodyguards are gunned down in the street. In Road to Perdition, it’s filmed through a torrent of rain, in slow motion, and void of any sound but Thomas Newman’s aching, majestic score. It’s such a heavenly vision of brutal death.


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