Various obligations have made it impossible to write an original piece for CultureSnob’s “Misunderstood Blog-a-thon,” which concludes today. But since I hate to be left out, here’s a stopgap contribution: a July, 2002 New York Press review of Road to Perdition, a movie I thought at the time was flawed but brilliant; many viewings later, I think even more highly of it. For another defense of a Mendes movie, Jarhead, click here.
Road to Perdition, a sprawling drama about a glum hit man going on the road with his young son to escape the crime family that sold him out, can be described in many different ways: as a gangster picture, a drama, a period piece, a comic book adaptation, a fantastic meditation on violence and its representation. But above all else, it’s a movie. From first frame to last, it’s defiantly a work of cinema, composed, lit, edited and shot with maximum attention to rhythm and detail; it’s always in the moment, and it builds a mood of dreamy dread and sustains it for about two hours, reeling off so many defiantly showy grace notes, and staging so many clever sequences, that after a while I stopped writing them down because my notepad was running out of paper.
Director Sam Mendes, a theater ace who won an Oscar for his first film, the cliched but masterfully done American Beauty, is a magnet for player haters. Like Hitchcock, he knows how to plant information at the beginning of a sequence and make it pay off at the end, sometimes in dizzying, delightful ways, and like Hitchcock, he understands how to move the camera in ways that conceal and then reveal things, creating both suspense and surprise. Every move Mendes makes has a showman’s conviction, and while that kind of confidence never bugs fans of De Palma, Spielberg or Walter Hill—three persistent darlings of the Paulettes whose fondness for hackneyed genres is rarely treated as a downside—it seems to drive Mendes’ legion of detractors into a frothing rage. Leaving a screening last week, I listened to the audience, and they seemed dramatically divided on the picture’s merits; some complained that it was too dark, too violent, too simplistic and too sentimental–adjectives that rarely coexist–while the film’s defenders liked it for reasons they seemed incapable of rationally explaining. I fall into the latter camp; Mendes and his collaborators have made the kind of film that I’ve always wanted to see: a fever dream about the gangster-infested 30s that has the moody texture of the Godfather pictures, the studied elegance of mid-period Hitchcock, the melodramatic twists of a Saturday morning serial, the pulp brutality of a Sam Fuller film and the childlike naivete of an early Disney cartoon like Bambi. It’s an unwieldy, even bizarre mix that alternates failure with dazzling success; depending on your temperament, it will strike you as piercingly true or utterly false (rather like American Beauty). But in an age where the basic values of composition, lighting, pacing and tone have been degraded by megacorporate Hollywood—which thinks Ridley and Tony Scott’s tv-commercial flashiness is artful—Road to Perdition struck me as an old-school blast: technique plus feeling. It was clearly made by people who know what they’re doing, and their vigor gives what might have been merely an overblown genre piece a certain resonance. After Minority Report and A Song for Martin, no film in theaters right now is more grand, direct or pure.
As hero Michael Sullivan, Hanks at first seems miscast; his pistol-wielding suburban dad suggests a 1930s version of a Godfather or Sopranos character, torn between domestic affection and the bloody demands of his job, and compelled to compartmentalize his morality so that he can do his bosses’ bidding. It seems a role tailor-made for a hardcase like Bruce Willis—or, in the 1960s, someone like Lee Marvin or Steve McQueen. But Hanks submerges his warmth during the film’s first two acts, keeping Michael’s fatherly affection period-accurate (no hugging here). His relationship with his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a small, rather under-written supporting turn) feels hard, no-nonsense, real; his two boys, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken), see their pop as a distant, slightly intimidating figure.
The first time we see him, we’re in Michael Jr.’s shoes, looking at the man in the distance, through an open doorway that half-hides him, revealing his shoulder holster in nearly subliminal glimpses. Michael Jr. isn’t quite sure what his dad does for a living, so he decides to find out, and hides out in the old man’s car as he goes to confront a “family” member who’s started mouthing off about how the patriarch, John Rooney (Paul Newman), is running things. In a brilliant stroke, the whole inevitably horrific sequence is played out from Michael Jr.’s point of view as he stares through a crack in the baseboard of a warehouse wall; the jagged edges of the crack form a frame-within-a-frame, and we watch through the child’s eyes as John Rooney’s son, the remorseless thug Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), intimidates and then shoots the wayward, terrified underling at close range. Throughout the sequence, Michael Sr. is reduced to a pair of shoes bracketing the blurry foreground–an objective correlative for the son’s distance from, and confusion about, his father’s true nature. There are many scenes in Perdition that deserve such close scrutiny. Drawing on the comic and adding flourishes of his own, Mendes tells the story in almost purely visual (and aural) terms, withholding and then offering information in ways that reinforce the plot and themes. An early sequence in the film has John Rooney and his spiritual son, the fatherless, unofficially adopted Michael Sr., bonding at a wake for a slain family member. Mendes eschews expositional dialogue, letting them communicate the depth of their understanding by noodling out a melody together on a piano.
Mendes’ background in theater is often rapped by his detractors, but it almost certainly helped him to conceive actorly moments in visual terms. A nighttime conversation between the boys in their bedroom is lit by Michael Jr.’s flashlight; he uses the beam as a weapon to silence the younger boy, who’s asking questions about the old man that his brother would rather not contemplate. After the first execution sequence, as father and son sit in their car, they don’t cry, but the streetlamps shine through the windshield, coating them with the shadow of rain, as if the world is weeping on their behalf. (Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall pulled the same trick in In Cold Blood, only in black and white.) When Michael Sr. pays a visit to a nightclub owner who’s late with loan payments to Da Family, the owner, who’s seated behind a desk, places a gun atop the desk and hides it beneath a sheet of paper, then invites Michael to enter his office. As a tense confrontation unfolds, the thumping bassline from elsewhere in the nightclub gradually shifts the paper so that Michael can see the pistol; simultaneously, the nightclub owner reads a note delivered by Michael on behalf of his boss, and we don’t find out what it says until the very last shot in the sequence.
Except for Leigh, whose presence in the film amounts to an overqualified bit of stunt casting, the performances are uniformly excellent. Newman lets his age show, surveying the wake—and his crumbling empire—with a rueful wisdom. Jude Law has a small role as a rotten-toothed, thin-haired crime photographer who doubles as a freelance hit man; the role is amusingly nasty on its own terms, and it also allows Mendes and Hall to draw useful comparisons between photography and violence–the idea that a picture, like a bullet, can steal a soul. (“I shoot the dead,” he explains.) Hall and production designer Dennis Gassner (who did similar work for the Coen brothers in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink) seem mesmerized by the visual possibilities of this subject matter, delivering one indelible image after another, luxuriating in a widescreen, emotionally transparent version of film noir–Model T headlights cutting through gloom; blood spattering on bathroom tile; flat raindrops, lit by streetlamps, spattering off the brim of shiny black hats. Perdition is a stream of images, burned together by editor Jill Bilcock with such offhand precision that it feels as though you’re remembering the movie even as it unfolds. You could say that Mendes’ film is too abstract, too self-consciously beautiful, that it’s all about sensation–that it subordinates plot to theme, perhaps to mere effect. I’d answer that the best movies feel like dreams, that they affect us in ways that defy logic, and that if any recent Hollywood blockbuster could claim to merge entertainment with art, it’s Perdition.