Released 2002. Director: Sam Mendes
SONS ARE PUT ON THIS EARTH TO TROUBLE THEIR FATHERS, says Paul Newman’s
character in Road to Perdition. A neat summing up of the central theme, the expression characterizes this moody, poignant and ultimately grand piece of filmmaking.
The bond is thick between these men. Tom Hanks and his young son, Hanks and his adopted father Paul Newman, and then there is Newman’s own son, played by Daniel Craig. Although the ties are strong, they can nonetheless be undone like a pull of a shoelace, quick and sudden, by the forces of circumstances in the mobster underworld they operate.
This study of family dynamics threatened by betrayal and upheld by honour is
the stuff that makes a cinema classic. Within the structure is a drama of justice and
duty, but more importantly the tragedy of loyalty and love.
The setting is Depression era Chicago of 1931 when power resides with those who
control gangland politics. Playing a hitman, Tom Hanks is nonetheless not drawn to be a villain but a good bad guy. He shoulders the role with enough conflicts and dignity to straddle the thin line between virtue and ruthlessness. Paul Newman, lured out of retirement, gives a finely modulated performance with an added sense of patriarchal gravitas. In a small but pivotal part, Jude Law shows up with grotty nails and even uglier teeth, armed to the eyebrows in menace and creepy presence, as he hunts down Hanks and son.
Collaborating with cinematographer Conrad Hall after the success of
American Beauty, director Sam Mendes once again draws on striking imageries to tell his story. With the meticulous passion of a consummate artist, he has created a work that’s been considered by some to be over-studied. Truly, from beginning to end, Road To Perdition looks and feels every bit deliberate and planned to the very last detail.
Perhaps the most obvious calculation is the final showdown between Hanks and
Newman. While some have criticized it showy and pretentious, the sequence shot in
slow motion and silence heightens the emotions and the eventual gun blast serves to
amplify Hanks’ devastating decision.
Similarly tight compositional technique rules the film in every scene. The angle
of the light, where the characters stand, the camera’s point of view, selective focusing,
rising steam from a dinner pot, an abandoned bicycle in the snow, a curl of smoke from a cigarette, a bead of sweat -- the film is moulded, sculpted and chiselled to achieve a level of perfection and symbolism that leaves nothing unconsidered.
Such result is at once an achievement and a letdown. On one hand it is an arty
display of directing finesse, on the other hand it is as self-conscious as a painstakingly
orchestrated dinner party. But should Mendes be faulted for polishing his
work to the nth degree? I reckon not.
With this being only his second film, and one that will unquestionably live up to,
or even eclipse his acclaimed debut American Beauty, Sam Mendes has graduated with double honours. The road to redemption never looked this striking.