Road to Perdition
Starring: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Hoechlin
Director Sam Mendes' ("American Beauty") "Road to Perdition" is a masterful piece of cinema and easily Hollywood's first important film of 2002. This well crafted movie is filled with striking imagery, stunning cinematography, terrific performances, brilliant editing and a solid musical score. In short, "Road To Perdition" has everything.
Set in depression era 193l, the film deals with mob hit man Michael Sullivan (Hanks) and his relationship with his oldest son, Michael Jr. (Hoechlin). Sullivan is a cold blooded, Tommy gun toting killer for Irish mob boss, John Rooney (Newman). Rooney controls a Midwestern territory for the infamous Capone gang. While Sullivan doesn't particularly "get off" on murdering people, he does his job with cool efficiency and total loyalty to the Rooney family, who took Sullivan in as a young boy and treated him like a son. Thanks to Rooney, Michael Sullivan lives in a nice home with his loving wife (Leigh) and two small sons. While somewhat distant, particularly from his oldest son, nine-year old Michael Jr. (Hoechlin), Sullivan is a good husband, father and provider. When Michael Jr. gets curious as to his Dad's job, he hides in the rear seat of the car when Michael Sr. goes on an assignment with Rooney's hot headed son, Conner. His curiosity turns into a nightmare as he secretly watches his father machinegun rival gang members in a spontaneous argument. Witnessing this slaughter will put father and son in great jeopardy and change their lives forever. The dangerous events that follow and the relationship between the nine-year-old boy and his Dad make up the powerful and difficult subject matter of the film.
Mendes, his cinematographer, Hall and editor Bilcock, tell this story with great sensitivity. Dialogue is used sparingly as the director prefers to let imagery narrate the story. Using the icy cold Midwestern winter to great effect, the visuals have a grim beauty that flows effortlessly from one amazing scene to another. Mendes attention to every detail of the era (sets, costumes, cars, etc.) only adds to the overall effect. Thomas Newman's lovely and often bizarre score punctuates the mise-en-scenes with emotion and depth. There are moments when the interaction between father and son might become too sweet and syrupy but Mendes keeps a firm hand and resists any temptation to manipulate the audience with sentimentality. "Road To Perdition" is a dark and powerfully poignant film.
While the movie is filled with many memorable scenes, it is the performances of Hanks and Newman that make an indelible impression on the audience. This is Hanks finest screen performance to date. His portrayal of hit man Sullivan is mesmerising. When Sullivan shows rare cracks in his cold exterior, Hanks never allows the audience to forget that our fatherly gangster is a cold-blooded killer. Paul Newman as the aging Irish mobster, John Rooney, comes across as a kindly grandfather who, in a split second, can give you an icy stare that sends shivers down your spine. One can believe the truth of Rooney's statement to Sullivan, "One thing is for certain. We will never see the inside of heaven." These are flawless performances by two actors at the top of their game.
Cameo performances by Stanley Tucci as Capone boss Frank Nitti and Ashley Judd as the psycho assassin, Maguire, add chilling layers of dread to the dark narrative. Daniel Craig gives an offbeat portrayal as John Rooney's "loose cannon" son, Conner. Jennifer Jason Leigh goes against type as the sweet, loving wife and mother, Mrs. Sullivan, who knows only too well what her husband's real job is all about. Finally, Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Jr. delivers a touching and sensitive portrayal.
"Road to Perdition" is an exceptional movie, the kind Hollywood does best. Sam Mendes skilfully takes this film into a new and visually fresh territory without seeming showy or overly stylistic. Even at this early stage, it is safe to say that "Road to Perdition" will remain one of the top films of the year 2002.