It has more style per square inch than can be found in the sum total of all the films released so far in 2002. It boasts an almost perfect period evocation. It features a screenplay with dialogue that can hardly be faulted on an intelligence level. It offers no less than five dynamic performances. And it contains at least one sequence — a rain-drenched mass assassination — that ranks up there with the great classic gangster films (indeed, it’s probably inspired by James Cagney’s famous “I ain’t so tough” shoot-out in The Public Enemy). With all that going for it, it’s a shame that Road to Perdition never quite crosses that precarious line from a very good movie to a truly great one. Why? The general line of thought tends toward the view that the film is predictable. It’s certainly that. But the question arises as to whether the plot is so much predictable as it is inevitable. I lean toward the idea that it’s inevitable — that we are watching characters moving toward a pre-ordained ending that they fully expect themselves. They are simply acting out the roles that life has assigned them. There’s something deeper and more elemental missing here — a sense of identification with and sympathy for the characters. It’s finally just too airless and formal to work as involving drama. The characters are invariably interesting. Most of their actions — regardless of how morally dubious — are perfectly understandable. But it’s hard to care what happens to them. A sense of detachment pervades the film. Blame director Sam Mendes. For all the admirable creative intensity he brings to the film, he seems more fascinated by the events on the screen than involved with them. That has a plus side as well, since it’s Mendes almost off-hand attitude toward the film’s violence that makes it especially chilling. Then too, there’s an aching sense that the film is altogether too conscious of its artistry and importance. In modern film, Road to Perdition resembles nothing so much as a darker version of the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing — with nearly all that film’s wit and fun carefully removed. That’s what’s wrong with the film. What’s right with it, however, is so right that it outweighs its failings. The storyline is admirably simple: Irish “mafia” hit man Michael Sullivan’s (Tom Hanks) 12-year-old son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), hides in his father’s car so he can learn exactly what it is his father does for a living. Finding out comes with a heavy price. Not only does it shatter any illusions the boy may have about his father, but it puts both of them on the spot, since gangland boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) is fearful that the boy’s knowledge will come back on his own son, Connor (Daniel Craig), who did the actual killing. Despite the fact that Rooney views Sullivan as a son, he’s more concerned with protecting his plainly psychotic — yet ultimately profit and power-driven — son. When Connor executes Sullivan’s wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger son (Liam Aiken), thinking the younger son is Michael Jr., Sullivan and his surviving son go on the run with revenge on Sullivan’s mind. As a tale, it’s a deliciously ironic affair that works on a number of levels at once, many of which are not immediately apparent, and none of which feel the need to beat the viewer over the head. For example, there’s one brief scene where it becomes obvious that Rooney knows his son is unstable and weak, but the film suggests that the seeds of this are present in Rooney himself. There’s an understated irony in the implicit fact that the death of Sullivan would save his son (in more than one way), while the death of Rooney would seal the doom of his son. The degree of corruption that Rooney’s empire encompasses is conveyed in one simple bit of dialogue from Sullivan to his son: “If I’m not back in half an hour, go to Reverend Lynch at First Methodist and tell him what happened. Don’t go to Father Callaway. And make sure Reverend Lynch goes to the Bureau of Investigation, not the police.” Rooney himself has the film’s most resonant moment — and perhaps the reason Mendes chose not to make Sullivan and his plight utterly sympathetic — when he confronts Sullivan late in the film and points out, “There are only murderers in this room. Open your eyes! This is the life we lead … the life we chose — there’s only one guarantee. None of us will ever see heaven.” It’s all done with tremendous style and backed by exceptional performances. Jude Law and Paul Newman are both brilliant and chilling, but the real revelation is Tom Hanks, in a role that is a complete departure from anything in his career. It’s a carefully controlled, utterly convincing performance that never once relies on Hanks’ usual shtick. It’s good enough that I’m almost willing to forgive him making me spend 90 minutes watching him converse with a volleyball in Cast Away — almost. Imperfect Road to Perdition may be, but it’s still a film not to be missed.
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