Review: “Road to Perdition”

“Godfather” or “Untouchables” it certainly is not, but “Road to Perdition” proves that even after delivering such a superb piece of cinema with his first effort “American Beauty”, Director Sam Mendes is on course to become one of the great directors of this decade.

Despite its Depression-era setting and mobster overtones, ‘Road’ is far more of a western about one man on a crusade of violence in order to protect his son from the life he’s lead. There’s typical mobster movie subplots of ‘family’ and in this case Irish background but sadly none of them particularly spark our interest. As much as its enjoyable to see the good on-screen chemistry between Hanks and Newman, the scenes are few and far between whilst a subplot about Newman’s overly vicious but dumb son Connor (Daniel Craig) is fine but the whole “Hanks was the son I should’ve had” theme feels unconvincing and dare I say cliched.

Hanks himself is a consummate performer, he understands the material well and plays right to its subtle strengths. Newman seems to be loving his work as a sort of local Don and whilst some of the more emotional outburst scenes are a little rough around the edges, its the quieter more neutral conversations between him and Hanks in the last act that are compelling. Jude Law is the strongest performer of all though and certainly of Supporting Actor Oscar nomination quality.

His twisted turn as a killer who takes photos of his victims includes not only an intriguing makeup of bad teeth and vanishing hair, but a real sense of menace and animal predatorism about him which make him one of the best on-screen bad guys you’ll see in a movie this year. Supporting roles are fine but the likes of Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh have little to do, whilst there’s no sign of Alfred Molina’s cameo as Al Capone though his name is brought up many times.

After a decent but unremarkable first act, things pick up in the middle as it becomes Hanks and son being forced into a desperate run for their lives. There’s some skilfully pulled off sequences here including one in the Hanks household where the son Michael comes back to the house only to see Connor ready to assassinate him – there’s a simple trick of light in this scene but it works very effectively.

As the film progresses and the pace begins to pick up there’s several more scenes of a remarkably well filmed style – a series of bank robberies is made into a slick and fast montage, a shootout in a hotel room screams out in sheer power, a simple conversation in a diner instills an astonishingly high level of tension, and the finales in both a rain-soaked street and quiet beach house are predictable yet still quite powerful. Mendes never goes too far and stays true to the film’s central elements.

Yet there’s a central problem here in that the film seems to lack fire. Proceedings move from point A to B to C in ways that are for the most part easy to guess and every scene is shot as though its trying to become a piece of artwork, yet because of that level of sheer deliberation there’s a real coldness and lack of life. You know what’s coming long before the characters do and when they come around to actually doing said action, nothing particularly comes as a surprise as more often than not this will resort to gangster movie elements we’ve see countless times before.

On top of that ‘Perdition’ never glamorises, makes fun of or even shows us a different side of its setting. Despite the gorgeous cinematography throughout, this is a very down, dirty and serious affair and while some will like the fact it sticks so closely to its guns, the lack of humour, the gloomy locations and even sympathetic characters makes this a dark, bloody and somewhat depressing narrative to follow. Even the loving father/son relationship that’s supposed to be the film’s heart is icy.

Maybe its because I’ve never been a big Tom Hanks fan, maybe because I dislike both westerns and gangster movies, and maybe because the film has been hyped above and beyond belief but while I did like ‘Road’ a lot and can see why people say its an Oscar potential, I and I’m sure other viewing audiences will find it a little too hard to warm too.

Its a tragic story done in almost theatrical overtones but without the life or essence of the stage. In many ways that may be more realistic as to be involved in this world one would have to have an emotional coldness to deal with it psychologically. Yet a two hour film along those lines is sadly not the most engaging affair. Its superbly made and yet oddly sterile.