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Road to Perdition Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

Surprisingly lacking in personality, Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, like his American Beauty, is too pre-occupied with meeting genre standards to achieve independent triumph. Attempting to craft a classic gangster film with coming of age elements, Mendes once again relies on obvious symbolism to convey the paper-thin themes touched upon in David Self’s adaptation of the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Mendes seems insistent on showing off how well he can stage a scene, forgetting to tell a significant story in the process. A prime example occurs after a bloody mob shoot out in a back alley, when Mendes shows the reactions of the inhabitants in the lining apartments, who look on in cold horror. Nice shot–it’s just too bad they’d all be hiding and praying for dear life rather than staring aimlessly.

Father-son relationships drive Road to Perdition: the central one being between Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks) and Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), which takes an unexpected hit after young Michael discovers his dad is a hit man for John Rooney (Paul Newman), Michael Sr.’s father figure. Also presented is the relationship between John and son Connor (Daniel Craig), who is regarded highly by his father despite his hotheaded antics. These relationships are explored with mixed outcomes: Michael Sr. and Jr. are never believable as father and son as words are rarely spoken between them and, when they are, you get the sense young Michael has just been adopted. More successful is the relationship between Michael and John, which is set up thoughtfully through a somber piano duet at a wake, with the unspoken nuances of Hanks and Newman speaking louder than words. Newman and Craig lack father/son chemistry but the actors are skilled enough to convey the obligation each holds towards the other, even if Craig’s Connor never becomes anything more than a one-dimensional, whiny antagonist.

Thrown in the mix is Maguire (Jude Law), assassin/photographer who thrives on shooting the dead, in more than one way. The odd-looking character is hired by Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to take out Michael when fear grows in the mob that Michael Jr. will spill the beans about a botched negotiation attempt of his father and Connor’s that he witnessed. As a caricature more than a character, Law gives another diverse turn in the few scenes of the film that truly feel alive. It’s unfortunate then that Maguire is really nothing but a ploy who comes into play in several pivotal sequences, particularly the predictable, pretentious ending, that are detached from the film’s thematic core.

As Michael, Hanks is so restrained it’s impossible to connect with him; the viewer only has his son’s admiration on which to build the character’s foundation. The domestic sequences hint at poignancy the rest of the film never develops as young Michael looks through a doorway to see his father handling a gun and as mother Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shows determination for her children to not know their father’s profession; but these scenes turn out to be false positives when the viewer realizes how illogical they are. Did Michael and brother Peter (Liam Aiken) just now start questioning how their dad put food on the table? Has this father even spoken to his kids since birth? These events and those that follow unravel in pure cinematic contrivance, never conveying a genuine sense of curiosity in the children or an urgent sense of caring from the parents.

While Hanks’ performance remains shadowed throughout, Newman invokes John with a sincerity that implies a bond he shares with those close to him as Don Corleone had with his family and friends. Newman gets the peak line "Only one thing’s for certain: None of us will see Heaven," to which Michael Sr. replies "Michael could," presenting the film’s simplistic way of proposing young Michael has a choice to live a moral life, a choice his father lost long ago. Unexpectedly, Newman’s Sundance persona is brought to mind when Michael and son go on a series of bank-robbing exploits to pay for hotel expenses, though only to hurt the film; the happy-go-lucky Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-esque scenes feel painfully awkward and misplaced.

Much has been spoken of Conrad L. Hall’s vigorous cinematography that’s so profound you wish half the attention used on this aspect of this film was considered by Self, whose screenplay is derivative to the point of distraction. Self’s flimsy characters and disjointed plot don’t give the viewer or the filmmakers much to chew on, yet Hall manages to craft one of his best-looking pictures. The cinematography largely tells the film’s via breathtaking images while Mendes’ direction is secondary. Mendes is probably incapable of making a bad film, but he has a great deal of maturation to endure before he can make a great one. And, just for the record, a dinner table sequence does not effectively symbolize the importance of family these days, Sam. Road to Perdition is Oscar-bait in the classic DreamWorks vein, a picture that looks fantastic and has several things worthy of the coveted gold (particularly the work of Newman, Thomas Newman, whose score is mesmerizing, and cinematographer Hall), but falls apart under the American Beauty motif "look closer."

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