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Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes) 2002
Early on in Sam Mendes’ 1930’s set gangster film Road to Perdition, one of the bad guys is asked, “Why are you always smiling?” and he replies, “Because it’s all so fucking hysterical,” with a small laugh. This is fairly ironic, because there’s next to nothing that’s hysterical in Mendes’ hyper-controlled world. Everything’s been scripted and art-directed until all spontaneity ceases to exist, and the end result is a movie that feels stifling and utterly embarrassed to be a genre picture. The dominant image here seems to be a figure slowly walking alone down a hallway or alley – hardly the sort of visual that thrills. Though the movie is attractive, and pauses to fetishize smoke, sepia, and rainstorms, it also seems to find it necessary to tart up every action scene with unnecessary and false artiness in hopes of transcending what he must perceive as a gangster movie stigma. He fails miserably at his attempted transcendence, and ends up creating an unentertaining gangster flick at the same time. The set pieces, when they finally emerge, feel muted to the point where they have little effect at all. Just because Mendes is disdainful of the genre, doesn't mean that we want to be alienated from it, but we have no choice. Half of the scenes are shot through doorways as a way of distancing us from the action, and reminding us of its artificiality, but Mendes provides no commentary on the action that makes such a distancing device necessary or desirable. It's impossible to surrender yourself to a movie that keeps alerting you that it's fake as this does. Since the film is as straightforward as it is, Road becomes a self-conscious exercise in style for style’s sake. Its artiness becomes a disruption.
Worse yet, Mendes’ style often doesn’t bring us any closer to the emotions at the center of this tale. Though the film is told from the perspective of a naive 12-year-old boy, surprisingly little of the violence is rendered in any way that feels shocking. Seeing people get shot here is usually a surprisingly bloodless and hands off affair. It doesn’t even stun us much when we see Tom Hanks, as Michael Sullivan, pulling the trigger, which seems to work against the main reasons why casting him in a role like this seem inspired. Though he plays a hit man, he is filled with the same sort of humility and morality that has surrounded him for the last few years both on-screen and off. Early on, when one minor character is eulogizing his brother, he says that, “He was loyal and brave and he never told a lie.” Mendes cuts here to Hanks, as if to point out that his character still stands for these values, despite his slightly darker role here (this is in case we missed him rolling his eyes three minutes earlier as his kids ran off to gamble with dice), effectively diffusing any of the actor’s attempts to build on his character as written instead of his persona. Midway through the film, when a farmer tells Sullivan that his son “is a good worker” you expect his eyes to well up with tears, because his son has achieved the same sort of simple and modest virtue that is presented as beyond reproach here.
The supporting cast isn’t used much more adeptly. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s role is little more than a cameo. Paul Newman shows some impressive strength early on, but unfortunately resorts to speaking in hushed tones when he wants to stress his moral dilemmas, and as a result renders his character impotent. Jude Law plays a rival hit man who photographs his victims, and then sells the pictures to newspapers. His character, whose motivation is the feeling of life that his proximity to death makes him feel, is clichéd, but it’s also one of the few truly pulpy touches in the movie. It’s unfortunate, then, that his character seems also the have been conceived as an extended homage to Alex from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – complete with bowler hat and blackened eye – since it keeps him from having any real impact as a villain here. Instead of being afraid of his character, we’re amused by the reference.
It’s tough, though, to use a cast effectively, when the source material is as mediocre as it is in Road to Perdition. Hackneyed religious symbolism is abundant here, and most of it feels embarrassing, since Mendes doesn’t find an effective way of making us feel that it’s tied into the lives of these generally immoral Irish Americans in a significant way. We see them praying before dinner, and going to church, and a funeral, but it all feels like window dressing. When Michael and his son drive past a crossroads, it looks like a literal cross, pointing their way toward absolution, but the message of the movie seems to suggest that their path toward salvation is won through fighting instead of faith. As such it seems as if Mendes is vastly overplaying his hand when he has the boy adopt a statue of the Virgin Mary or has him write “I will not fight with other boys,” on a blackboard while a nun watches. The other symbolic touches, such as when Hanks and Newman play a song from a tattered songbook of “Irish Songs” or when the boys play dead after a brief snowball fight, are equally ham fisted.
Whatever Mendes does to the film here, there’s no denying that it has some decent production values. It’s a shame then that they seem wildly uncontrolled. The score, for example, which recalls an Irish-themed variation on the American Beauty score, is so omnipresent that it feels like the actual star of the picture. When it finally fades into the background, as it does for a calm father/son chat between Michael Sr. and Michael Jr., while they recuperate on a secluded farm (Is there a chain of these things? They crop up in movies so often that you’d think so.) after a gunfight, the effect is so noticeable that Mendes might as well flash the words “Quiet Moment” on the bottom of the screen. Instead he puts chirping crickets on the soundtrack to enhance the silence… then he has the music swell back in louder than before, when the scene climaxes. The rest of the film operates similarly, using artistry to force on the audience sentiment that feels outmoded, but obviously isn’t since it inspires a positive popular reaction. It’s no wonder that this was seen as a perfect vehicle for Hanks.