[He prays at dinner and kills at dawn. Do you love such a man? This man is your father...]
This is only one of the themes that "Road to Perdition" explores in each thought-provoking scene. With its poetic cinematography, haunting story and intriguing characters, "Road to Perdition" is, from start to finish, a spectacular filmmaking effort by everyone involved.
In Depression-era Chicago, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hit man, working for crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), a man who is like a father to Sullivan. This is to the great dismay of Connor (Daniel Craig), Rooney's real son. Michael's family consists of a loyal wife, Anne (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young sons. The eldest, 12 year-old Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) has a rather "different" relationship with his dad and feels that his father loves his younger brother more.
One night, Michael Jr., curious what his father does for Mr. Rooney, sneaks into his dad's car and witnesses a man's murder. To make sure that the boy keeps his mouth shut, a hit man targets the family killing Annie and the youngest son. He succeeds in causing chaos and grief, but misses his main targets, Michael Sr. and Jr. To protect his son and to revenge the deaths of his youngest son and wife, Michael Sr. hits the road to Perdition, a word with two meanings. On the surface Perdition is a small town where the boy's aunt resides, but perdition also means the utter loss of the soul, eternal damnation and hell. When a perverted hitman/photographer (Jude Law) is unleashed on the father/son duo, the safety of their trip is jeopardized.
David Self's screenplay is based on Max Allan Collin's graphic novel. The screenplay contains dark knots, breathtaking dialogue and chilling portraits of crime figures. Perhaps inspired by the graphic nature of the novel, master cinematographer Conrad Hall scrupulously designed each shot to look like a painting. The palette is muted with a monochromatic look, and characters are dressed in dull, grave clothes (designed by Albert Wolsky) to echo the dark period of the 1931 depression. Thomas Newman's music is also effective in underlining the themes.
One of the film's greatest virtues is its cast. Tom Hanks does an amazing job, playing Michael as dark and complex as possible. You can feel his moral struggle which he expresses quite often without words. It's impossible to look at Tom Hanks without having a "nice-guy" image flash (simply because that's the kind of a guy that he is), however despite this, we never doubt that Michael Sullivan has killed. Hank's oldest son, newcomer Hoechlin, proves to be a match on-screen. Hoechlin gives a subtle and refreshingly natural performance. During one scene when his character finds his mother and brother dead, his reaction is distinct, he does not cry. Only later does he allow tears to roll mercilessly.
Another father/son duo is composed of Paul Newman and Daniel Craig. Newman dominates scenes physically as well as verbally. Newman plays Looney with power, extensive detail and with a subtle hint of vulnerability. In Newman's own words, "A nice guy, who's a killer." His onscreen son, played by Craig, portrays Connor as sly, devilish, charming, sad and hurt in a very memorable, very real performance.
One actor that doesn't seem capable of giving a poor performance is Oscar Nominee Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Enemy of the Gates, AI). Without exception Law take another strong turn here. Director Sam Mendes exploits Law's unique qualities, creating an extremely creepy vision of a hit man who "photographs" his victims. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Annie Sullivan and Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti also add much oomph to the supporting cast.
Mendes makes sure to make the film as visually dynamic as possible. While some of the scenes may go on for some time without action, the images pose a somewhat poetic dialogue. As a director Mendes had to make many choices. He does a good job of surrounding the incredible performances with jarring scenery. As for deciding the moral fate of his tale, it is the scenes that invoke a response. The scenes are vivid and sincere. They challenge the audience from one moment to the next.
What is also nice about this film is that it does not glorify gangsters in any way. And although "Road to Perdition" is rated R, it doesn't use unnecessary violence. It is only shown when such blood-shed contributes to the plot or emotional impact.
"Road to Perdition," essentially a film about a man whose soul is beyond saving but still has a chance to save his son's, could very well be the fourth Best Picture in a row for Dreamworks. The entire piece blends in as a haunting symphony. It haunts the mind, as well as the soul.
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Road To Perdition is out July 12, 2002.