Road To Perdition, noted stage director Sam Mendes' follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut American Beauty, is as weighty as its title. Adapted from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, the film demonstrates that no source material is too pulpy to be transformed into the kind of overblown, meaning-mongering work that critic Manny Farber famously labeled White Elephant Art.
In look, tone, and content, Perdition is sort of a cross between American Beauty, Miller's Crossing, and Unforgiven. It's the square version of a Coen Brothers movie -- Miller's Crossing if it were middlebrow Oscar bait rather than a collegiate-film-buff approximation of gangster noir. And, like so many Coen films, Perdition is an intensely stylized genre homage, the overdetermined mise-en-scène of which belies a lack of heart or vision at the core.
A period gangster film set in the Prohibition-era Midwest, Perdition (which is actually a town in Illinois but so much more) stars Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, hit man for Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), dutiful husband to wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and father to sons Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken). The film is narrated by Michael Jr. and chronicles six weeks during the winter of 1931, when Sullivan's family and career are shattered and he sets out to avenge his losses.
"Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers," Rooney intones in the film's central piece of dialogue -- and the film presents three sets of father-son relationships: There is Rooney and his biological son, heir apparent Connor (Daniel Craig); Rooney and Sullivan, whom Rooney has adopted into the family and admires more than his own son (sort of like Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen in the Godfather movies); and Sullivan and Michael Jr., who sets the plot in motion by sneaking along with his dad and Connor during a "business trip" in order to discover what his father really does for a living.
Michael Jr. witnesses trigger-happy hothead Connor murder one of Rooney's loyal associates and his father subsequently gun down any remaining witnesses. And the discovery of Michael Jr. gives a jealous Connor the opening he needs to lash out at Sullivan and his family. After killing Annie and Peter and botching an assassination attempt on Sullivan, Connor goes into hiding and Sullivan and Michael Jr. go on the lam while Sullivan plans revenge.
But none of this conflation of family loyalties, ritualistic violence, and organized crime contains anything like the emotional or intellectual drive exhibited in the Godfather movies (or The Sopranos, for that matter, which is probably a grander popular entertainment than anything Hollywood has come up with lately). Much like with American Beauty (which I found far more entertaining --it may have been shooting fish in a barrel, but at least it had some spectacular fish), Mendes seems to have a sure idea of how to convey significance but has nothing of significance to convey.
Legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), who also shot American Beauty, seems as much the auteur here as Mendes. Indeed, Perdition is a triumph of photography and art direction more than anything else -- one of those rare color films where you really notice the lighting, where the blacks are deep and dark and the browns and mahoganies burnished, where every shot is arranged and framed as if by Rembrandt. But the visual design is so meticulous and the corresponding action so stiffly mythical that the movie seems embalmed.
A doughy Hanks is dwarfed by the scenery and plays Sullivan too reserved. Hanks, despite his recent status as Hollywood nobility, has always been best when allowing his natural lightness into the role, even in "serious" films such as Cast Away and Philadelphia. Here, his Michael Sullivan is less a conflicted, tortured figure in the mold of Eastwood's reluctant assassin in Unforgiven than a cipher. We know he suffers, but it's mostly because the film tells us rather than because Hanks (or Mendes) shows us.
Paul Newman gives a spry, sharp performance as Rooney (he, along with Hall, is likely to be remembered come Oscar time), while Jude Law is perhaps a bit too flamboyant (though the film needs the juice) as the ghoulish hit man Maguire, whom Capone's Chicago mob has hired to dispose of Sullivan. Jennifer Jason Leigh is fine but a little out of place in a tiny, tiny role that is, nevertheless, the most prominent female part in the film.
The film loses its own battle with sentiment, admirably fighting off what looks to be an unbearable conclusion only to end on a note no less false -- a happy ending made all the more giggle-inducing by the clumsy, obvious way Mendes and screenwriter David Self set it up. And the film's central, stated question -- was Michael Sullivan "a decent man" or "no good at all" --not only allows no shades of gray, it seems almost irrelevant. Mendes has gone out of his way to portray Sullivan as a loving father who wants to shield his son from violence, but he in turn shields the viewer by artfully obscuring the savagery of Sullivan's labor.
There's much to admire here: A series of Robin Hood-style father-and-son bank robberies may not have the verve of similar passages in Bonnie and Clyde, an obvious influence, but are filmed with a lightness and economy that are refreshing in the context of the film, and the murder of Connor (seen after the fact in the reflection of a mirrored door) and final confrontation between Sullivan and Maguire are memorable images. And then there's that consistently eye-popping cinematography. But I can't say that I felt a thing. And while some filmmakers make coldness work for them because they have a critical agenda -- Stanley Kubrick and Paul Verhoeven come immediately to mind -- Mendes crafts a film here that is ornate but suffocating.