If you were searching for somebody to play a murderer, chances are that Tom Hanks wouldn’t be at the top of your list, but in Road to Perdition, that’s exactly what he does. Sam Mendes’ second feature, after American Beauty, employs many of the same strategies – a focus on family and conflict (with the charming Hanks and Newman play against type as violent criminals bound by honour and loyalty), a luscious Thomas Newman score and a sense of characters marching to an inevitable fate. The difference, however, is that this film never really engages emotionally despite the sheer quality of its production.
Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is an enforcer for powerful Depression-era Midwestern mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman), and is known to friends and enemies alike as the Angel of Death. Rooney’s son Connor (Daniel Craig) is jealous of the close bond between Sullivan and his father, and after Mike’s eldest son Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses a hit, Connor uses it as an excuse to murder Sullivan’s wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son. Mike and Michael and forced to flee, and the two set out on a journey of revenge that brings the two closer together as much as it highlights the differences between them.
If there are many films that better look at family and the pains of betrayal, I am yet to see them. At its heart, the movie has three sets of father-son relationships – two biological and one emotional – and it how the lives that they lead mean that ordinary ideas of love are impossible. Hanks’ Sullivan loves his son as much as he does his boss and father figure, Rooney, and he is painfully aware that he must choose between the two. Is it possible for fathers to save their sons from the cost of their own sins? In this movie, it is tragedy rather than the pretence of the normal life that brings the Sullivans together, but in the quest to prevent tragedy befalling his son, Sullivan must be all that he wants his son not to be.
There was a conscious decision in this film to use few words, and instead to convey the emotion through the cinematography – it can be no surprise that Conrad Hall’s stunning work took home the Oscar. Road to Perdition realises beautifully the deep sadness of this America – it is almost all brown and black, emphasising its incredible darkness and bleakness, and it speaks just as much as our characters do. The film also uses water as a leitmotif, linked to death, and it helps create some visually fantastic shots – a massacre at night in the pouring rain, staged to beautiful funeral music as the flashes of a Tommy gun take out mobsters in slow motion, is an absolutely stunning shot.
In many ways, Road to Perdition is like a piece of cinematic poetry, as is also highlighted by Thomas Newman’s wonderful score, full of lavish strings that can’t fail to evoke feeling – it is edgy and engaging, which helps to keep you involved in a movie which is often fairly inert. The acting here is also exceptional – Hanks plays against type as a criminal and a murderer, his natural warmth being downplayed in favour of a learned warmness with his son. He is almost naïve in his love for Rooney, and his wounded betrayal is sad in its innocence.
Paul Newman is the real stand-out here, a man of few words who deplores the more violent aspects of his work but who understands the value of necessity. His paternal feelings are put to the test and the conflict is visible in every inch of him, his restraint rarely giving way to his emotions (and being all the most powerful when it does, such as a scene in which he thumps a table angrily at Connor’s insolence).
There are two issues – Jude Law is good as a psychopathic hitman in pursuit of the Sullivans, but the role is so contrived that it is almost funny when it should be sinister. And moreover, there is a general lack of connection with anyone – although the acting is incredible, there is no human warmth, and so it is difficult to truly engage emotionally with this picture. Road to Perdition is a wonderfully made movie, but the viewer can never really lose themselves in it.
Road to Perdition is stunning and a fantastic picture, gripping but never really engaging. It is definitely worth watching for the spectacle alone, and as a demonstration of cinematography of the top class – indeed, all the elements of top filmmaking are there, making it such a shame the heart isn’t. I enjoyed watching this movie, but I never felt as though I enjoyed it.
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Tyler Hoechlin (Michael Sullivan Jr.), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annie Sullivan), Tom Hanks (Michael Sullivan), Paul Newman (John Rooney), Daniel Craig (Connor Rooney), Ciaran Hinds (Finn McGovern)
Running Time: 117 Mins
Image credit: http://www.thelasttradition.com/2015_03_01_archive.html