Road to Perdition
Subtlety is not one of Sam Mendes' strong suits. The British director, who garnered a name for himself mounting stage productions, showcased his unabashed taste for the dramatic with an impressive and auspicious screen debut in American Beauty. Mendes' 1999 Best Picture-winning ode to suburban dysfunction was an uncanny combination of overwrought symbolism and affecting storytelling. From the over-the-top, but impressive performances (namely Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening dove into their characters with a bit too much gumption at times) to the lingering auteur shots which seem to announce the film as Oscar material (it's hard to know whether to appreciate Mendes' shot of that dancing plastic bag or write it off as ostentatious), American Beauty used its clichés successfully and created a provocative final cut. In his sophomore effort, Road to Perdition, Mendes proves that he is a man of consistency, offering up another overwrought yet stirring film.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Perdition is a heartfelt story about fathers and sons set against the backdrop of 1930s gangland violence. Tom Hanks stars as Michael Sullivan, a stoic hitman/family man who works for a powerful Irish mob boss named John Rooney (Paul Newman). Ruling over his "family" with wisdom and compassion, Rooney looks after Michael as if he were flesh and blood while maintaining a troubling relationship with his own son, Connor (Daniel Craig). A more calculating version of Sonny Corleone, Connor is greedy and unpredictable (always a dangerous combination in the mafia). Connor's maverick nature, and disregard for seemingly everyone but himself, comes to the fore after Michael's son witnesses "a job." Hiding in the back seat of his father's Buick, 13-year-old Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), sneaks off and watches as Connor and his dad gun down one of their former associates. Seizing on the mishap as a reason to take out his father's beloved surrogate son, Connor attempts to kill Michael and his family, but manages to only wipe out his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son.
What ensues is an unusual road trip as Michael Sr. and Jr. go on the lam, with Hanks's hitman trying to avenge the deaths of his family and make a new life for his son without falling victim to the sniper who's been put on his tail (Jude Law playing a mangy-looking killer who photographs his victims while they're dying).
Slow going in its early parts, Perdition picks up steam rather quickly and Mendes manages to work his film into a powerful drama about what it means to be a father and what it means to be a son. Much of the mafia business here looks familiar, but Mendes draws momentum from the parallel and overlapping relationships between his two central two father-son teams: the Sullivans and Rooneys. Shot with the similarly showy style he demonstrated in American Beauty, Perdition is pieced together like a slide show of still-life paintings. And while Mendes shows little control with his camera (his direction is as grandiose as his storytelling), the effect is often no less striking for it. From slow zooms to silent hits (in one of his more flashy shots, Mendes displays the aftermath of a gunshot wound to head in a slowly moving mirrored bathroom door), Mendes deserves credit for offering up distinguishing images of common screen fare.
Aside from the flashy camerawork though, the most memorable elements of Perdition come through in its simplest moments. Monologues about loyalty, retribution, and family (often delivered by Paul Newman, who gives one of the finest performances of his older years), hit home as Mendes manages once again to use his overt direction to create a quietly powerful film.
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