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Road To Perdition (R)
Dreamworks Pictures / Twentieth Century Fox
Official Site
Director: Sam Mendes
Producers: Richard D. Zanuck, Dean Zanuck, Sam Mendes
Written by: David Self
Cast: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Hoechlin, Liam Aiken

Rating: out of 5

Murder, revenge, and violence are all senseless, gruesome acts, but somehow, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) manages to find warmth, substance, and love in the seemingly hollow lives of Depression-era mobsters. One family: the Chicago Irish mafia. Two fathers: Michael Sullivan (Hanks), top hit man for the Irish mob; and his boss, John Rooney (Newman). Two sons: Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Hoechlin), who desperately wants to gain his father’s adoration; and Connor Rooney (Craig), who, seeing his father’s love for Sullivan, is consumed by jealousy. Deceit, competition, and envy ultimately bring these four together in a violent collision—a collision that begins and ends with murder.

Raised as John Rooney’s son, and working as his “angel of death,” Michael Sullivan and his family have a seemingly comfortable life. Yet, beneath it all, Sullivan’s family is slowly being disassembled by the secrecy of Sullivan’s murderous work. One rainy night, Michael Sullivan, Jr. hides in his father’s car, and for the first time, he sees his father conduct business: a murderous bloodbath in true mobster fashion. When Connor discovers Michael, Jr. at the scene, the Sullivans’ universe is immediately shattered.

Fueled by jealousy and hate, Connor sneaks into the Sullivans’ home and riddles Michael’s beloved wife (Leigh) and his youngest son, Peter (Aiken) with bullets. Now, on the run, Sullivan must balance his need for revenge with his desire for the redemption of Michael, Jr.—his desire to steer his oldest son away from the road to perdition. And most importantly, Sullivan must fight to keep them both alive, as their fates, along with the Rooney’s, are determined by the powerful and often belligerent relationships between fathers and their sons… and sons and their fathers. Therein we find the beauty of the film: Every man’s life is defined by his decisions at the crossroads of good and evil—which road he takes—and by the children he leaves behind.

For those of you hoping to find the quintessential mobster movie in Perdition—complete with dastardly, sleep-with-the-fishes one-liners and vague references to “cosa nostra”—look somewhere else, for this is no such movie. Mendes, again displaying his uncanny ability to capture subtlety, presents characters who are human first, and mobsters only by trade. Noticeably devoid of superfluous dialogue, Perdition depends on Mendes’ omniscient lens, which he dutifully provides. Every shot, every look, every color and pillar of light conjures meaning. In one scene, when Sullivan and Newman’s Rooney sit to play a duet together on the piano, not a word is spoken; yet, the screen drips with apprehension, respect, love, and emptiness. Mendes’ John Ford-ian use of doorways and windows to symbolize passage from one moment in life to another, his exceedingly innovative use of sound (especially in the final scene), and the raw, kinetic beauty of his action decidedly show that he is equally gifted in capturing motion as he is in capturing the human condition.

Hanks, as usual, is the backbone of this film. Because his character is necessarily inaccessible, hidden, and internalized, Hanks makes us feel honored by silently opening the soul of Sullivan for us to see. Indeed, I am convinced that Hanks’ best talent is his ability to “realize” things for the first time on camera—to think and to absorb, and to let us see him do it. His dark, disturbed, yet huge-hearted Sullivan brilliantly epitomizes a man struggling for the salvation of his son, and is one of the finest examples of what can be achieved through simplicity, honesty, and vulnerability.

Paul Newman is, of course, equally as impressive. He, like Hanks, is a master of subtlety, but carries with him the sheer power of being Paul Newman. Watching him and Hanks together—both of them silver screen gods to their respective generations—is like standing at the foothills of two great volcanoes. The ground rumbles, and the calderas spit smoke, and we wait in anticipation until that perfect, climatic moment when their performance erupts. Newman’s Rooney is vicious but compassionate, loyal but confused, powerful but weakened by his own self-disdain. And with these opposites, Newman succeeds in manifesting the most dynamic character—not a character you love to hate, but one you hate to love.

Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin does an excellent job in portraying Michael, Jr. No doubt, largely the result of sharing most of his screen time with Hanks, his performance is exceedingly pure, true, and fresh. Jude Law, as the maniacal hit man hired to off Sullivan, makes an otherwise arbitrary and clichéd character quite memorable. Taking the depth of motivation, personality, and largesse that the script affords him, Law creates some of the most memorable scenes of the film.

It would be irresponsible not to mention as well the brilliance with which screenwriter David Self (Thirteen Days and The Haunting) adapts this tale from Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel, with illustrations by Richard Piers Rayner. While, for the most part, Self stuck to the original material (with the exception of altering the fate of John Rooney—originally named Looney—and lessening the body count slightly), he added to it an emotional rhythm—a deeper humanity—that allows us to see more of ourselves in Sullivan. Like the waves of the great lake—which play a hugely symbolic role in the film—Self constructs a narrative that hits the viewer repeatedly, swell after swell. But in the troughs, in the calm time, over the crest of the approaching wave, we get a glimpse of the world, and are filled with hope… until the next wave hits.

Certainly, Misters Collins and Rayner deserve much praise as well. Many shots in the film mimic Rayner’s illustrations, and Collins’ story is first class. Producer Dean Zanuck says of Collins and Rayner’s novel, “The father and son story had a powerful emotional impact on me, and the illustrations… provided a great visual of the period.” Dean sent a copy to his father Richard D. Zanuck, who passed it on to DreamWorks’s top dog Steven Spielberg. “Two days later,” says Zanuck, “the phone rang. It was Steven and he said, ‘I love this. Let’s do it.’ And that’s how it happened.”

I have heard complaints that Perdition is too internal, too stoic. But stoicism is not a lack of emotion; it’s a superfluity of suppressed emotion. And what is more exciting than watching emotion forcefully explode from its restraints within America’s finest actors? This film will make you laugh, cry, jump, and hope. From its intriguing and moving tale of fathers and their sons, to its surprises and aesthetic beauty, Road to Perdition is truly a remarkable study of humankind.

It’s the best mobster movie since Goodfellas. It challenges our romantic infatuation with crime, and reminds us that we are the construct of our decisions—and everyone makes bad ones. As Newman’s character says, in one fashion or another, “there’s no one in this room that is not a murderer.” Indeed, this film proves that watching humankind’s silent struggles is far more interesting than just watching the deeds that arise from them. It proves that less is more. And judging from the applause I heard at the end of the screening, that is exactly what you will be cheering after you watch Road to Perdition: “More. More. More.”

W. Duke Greenhill


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