Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition

USA, 2002. Rated R. 117 minutes.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stanley Tucci, Liam Aiken
Writer: David Self, based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner
Music: Thomas Newman, John M. Williams
Cinematographer: Conrad L. Hall
Producers: Sam Mendes, Dean Zanuck, Richard D. Zanuck
Director: Sam Mendes


Grade: A- Review by Frances Nicole Rogers

Gangster Land is a popular cinematic Hollywood region shimmering in the city of angels. Here, men who thoughtlessly participate in extortion and murder also participate in innocent traditional ceremonies and value respect, family, and God above all. The contradiction is seemingly lost on them, but is not lost on those lawmakers and mayors who run the villages and cities of Gangster Land.

Gangster Land is dominated by its Italian population--most outsiders cannot separate their image of Gangster Land from the culture of its Italian residents. This is not a bad thing, as the most popular of the Italian locales, The Godfather trilogy, has improved Gangster Land for the better and turned it into a popular theme park. But in the face of the big Italians, visiting tourists expecting people of a certain kind on their tour may underappreciate the other inhabitants of Gangster Land. For example, the sizable Irish population of Gangster Land is overlooked in lieu of the glitz of the Italians, though there are many establishments within the Irish community that are just as good as those of the Italian population, such as Miller's Crossing. Goodfellas, one of the more noted Gangster Land establishments, has a healthy cross of both Irish and Italian heritage.

The early 1930's Gangster Land village of Road to Perdition is a beautiful, poetic, and well-crafted section of the Irish Mafia quarter. Here, it is not christenings, weddings, and First Communions being celebrated, but funerals, funerals, and, er, more funerals. Suffice it to say that tales in the Irish quarter are not as gleefully corrupt as those in the Italian neighborhood. The contradiction between good and the bad is not lost on the villagers of Road to Perdition. They admit their life of crime is condemned by the religion they so devotedly believe in, and thus live in a cloud of anger and regret.

The story is set in motion by the burning desire of Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), to know the occupation of his father, Michael Sullivan, Sr. (Tom Hanks). He secretly tags along on one of his father's late night trips; unfortunately, Michael's youthful curiosity does not serve him well. Not only does he discover that his father is a machine gun-packing hit man working for dice master John Rooney (Paul Newman) and his son Conner (Daniel Craig), but he endures more bloodshed the next day, all for the sake of keeping the secrets he saw. In order to save themselves, both he and his father must hit the road.Paul Newman and Tom Hanks

On first sight, one may feel that the village of Perdition is a bit too self-important for its own good. This is what I felt, too--it seemed a bit too arty and grand for its pulp fiction material. Yet, on a second visit to Perdition, the artistry and script combined into something amazing.

The village of Perdition very well may be the closest the Irish population of Gangster Land has ever approached the neighborhood of the Godfather trilogy (though its influence on other villages and cities of Gangster Land has yet to be seen). Perdition studies the same themes of family, guilt, and revenge, and has the same breathtaking beauty. The late Conrad L. Hall, who won two Oscars for his previous visual efforts, and town mayor Sam Mendes, who previously won an Oscar for his suburban development, American Beauty, meticulously designed the look of this village. That this village is so visually beautiful is amazing considering that Road to Perdition was based on a comic book (er, "graphic novel"). Many villages in Hollywood based on comic books are visually flat (because they try so hard to duplicate the look of the comic book without being overtly exaggerated). Far too many villages founded on comic books feel almost as static as the source material. Perdition has a resident thief: Jude Law, Hollywood career criminal--a man who steals scenes, not valuables or money. His Harlen Maguire persona in Road to Perdition is a rather unpleasant one. Law may retain his usual pretty boy looks, but they buried beneath a pale, gaunt, and ratty image. Gone, also, is the warm, accessible, and humorous persona he wore last year in the village of A.I. Artificial Intelligence in the special Spielberg portion of Sci-Fi Land. Here he is cold and psychotically homicidal. Law makes Maguire a formidable and real villain; his creepy presence is known the moment he appears.

Mendes' direction also helps in making Maguire quite scary, as he does for other moments of suspense. Sound manipulation is important here--it's either amplified, like the rhythm of a jazz band playing upstairs, or muted, like the lack of sound when a certain villager downs a large group of men. Village musician Thomas Newman also knows about manipulating sound, like those of his occupation are known to do. Newman has worked with Mendes before on American Beauty. His rightly Oscar-nominated composition for Perdition is lush and haunting, moving the spirit of the tourists who hear them. Newman's composition for Road to Perdition is like the Irish version of Nino Rota's Godfather score.

Resident household name Tom Hanks is an interesting member of the Road to Perdition community. While its other residents possess amphibian-like characteristics, adjusting themselves to the appropriate temperature of their characters, Hanks seems to have been given a raw deal. When the temperature of his character is cold, he stays at the 55-degree mark. When the temperature of his character is warm, he adjusts as best as he can without being blatantly obvious (though for him, that is a most difficult task). It is recommended to Mr. Hanks that in other villages he play personas of darker context, but in the future he should chose those personas that match his ability rather than those that don't.

Other Perdition residents range from being good citizens to, um, tolerable ones. Paul Newman, who I don't recall ever being as subdued as he is playing John Rooney, shows an understanding of the village's concerns about the religious gangster contradiction. In fact, it seems his character is the most conscious of that contradiction and the most tragic. Despite the fact that he is, in essence, a cold-blooded killer, tourists will be able to sympathize with this father/grandfather figure of sorts. Tyler Hoechlin is decent, but tourists may feel agitated the thousandth time he whines "paw" (his best scene was, sadly, cast out of the village, though tourists can view it in their take-home edition). Otherwise, it's the emotions he conveys on his face that are more convincing than those that come out of his mouth. Also good are village hopper Stanley Tucci as Al Capone man Frank Nitti, and Daniel Craig as Conner Rooney.

I would wholeheartedly recommend curious tourists visit Road to Perdition. It is a startlingly wonderful new village that will appeal to both frequent visitors to Gangster Land and those who prefer an amazing village in general. I'd also recommend more than one visit to Perdition--the village will only get better.

Review © March 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2002 Dreamworks LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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