The Road To Perdition

July, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Sam Mendes

Starring:Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig

The Road to Perdition

It's hard not to unreservedly praise a movie whose individual parts present so much to admire. In his sophomore effort, British directorial sensation Sam Mendes, (American Beauty) may have read the reviews of his maiden voyage and taken them too much to heart. The very theatricality of that film mars this one, keeping too much distance between what's going on up on the screen and our backsides in the seats. And the fundamental key to that disappointment lies in a single, pivotal character.

Perdition is a period gangster piece, set in Depression-era Illinois. It stars Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, the former a devoted hitman to the latter's Capone-linked Irish Mob boss. The film unfolds from the point of view of Hank's 12 year old son, played, unhappily is must be said, by an otherwise angelic young actor named Tyler Hoechlin. (The rest of the superb cast--Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law etc-- stumbles because of this.)  When Hoechlin witnesses his Dad's role in a gangland slaying, an inevitable fear about the boy's willingness and ability to keep his mouth shut converts criminal allies into adversaries who deal with each other in escalating levels of retaliatory violence and vendetta. 

Movies that present their narrative from a child's viewpoint, (Paper Moon and  Shane come to mind) require a juvenile lead who's capable of doing two things at once-fit credibly into the role while simultaneously and unconsciously displaying a vulnerability that makes us identify with them whatever happens. Hoechlin, alas, just can't pull it off; he's attractive, but unable to bring any adolescent authenticity to his character and this deficiency leeches through the action, preventing the brutal story he unfolds from  involving us properly. 

And he's not helped by Mendes' lavish effort with every frame; the film looks gorgeous, with period sets, fantastically authentic clothes and props, and even a haunting score based on the melancholy strains of Irish folk music and 30's pop tunes that grow quite organically out of the action. But the director can't leave the rich tapestry alone; unlike Altman's Gosford Park, which allows the same level of opulent detail to form a perfectly nuanced background to the action going on in front of it, Mendes distracts from his plot line with too many scenes in which he interrupts the flow of his own narrative to show off his almost painterly skills. A dilapidated farmhouse in rural Illinois thus becomes something out of an Andrew Wyeth canvas, while a period diner looks snatched from a Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. The effects are gorgeous; rain never looked better dripping off fedoras or bouncing up off dark asphalt, and shadows on the paneled study in Newman's gangster palace never looked richer or more ominous; but the eye feasts too much on the detail even as a very able cast (Hoechlin excepted) fights to gain your attention. In this tug of war however, one actor really stands out; newcomer David Craig, who plays Newman's narcissistic, murderous son. He gives a truly chilling performance made all the more compelling because it pulls the audience into his twisted worldview so much more effectively than does Hanks, his stolid adversary. Newman is also fine; there hasn't been another American actor who's had the skill and bravery to do important work in the final years of his life since Burt Lancaster capped his carrier with Atlantic City, The Leopard and Go Tell The Spartans. With his steely eyes and flinty grin, Newman manages to wrap a thoroughly despicable character with a humanity that almost rescues the film's remoteness.

And there is nothing in his earlier film to signal Mendes' skill in filming violence; it's brutal here, unvarnished and awful in it's beauty. But the very intensity of these frighteningly composed scenes is neutralized by the Currier & Ives approach to so much of the rest. 

Sam Fuller, the renegade American director of so many memorable B-grade movies once said that a really good film showed actors in motion on a set in motion in a plot constantly in motion. Would that Mendes had followed that advice; it could have produced a great movie instead of an interesting but oddly remote one.   

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