Road to Perdition
Road to Perdition seems to have been positioned as the anti-Spider-Man — the based-on-a-comic-book movie that doesn’t feel like a comic book. The original 1998 graphic novel, written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, read like a breezy, exciting movie (Loren D. Estleman commented that the book was “the best movie I’ve seen in years”). But what works in a comic book doesn’t always work on the screen; just because a comic book combines words and images doesn’t make it tailor-made for Hollywood. Free advice for future producers who flip through a comic and see dollar signs: Comics like Ghost World, which on the face of it did not look like movie material, often make the best movies.
So we arrive at the movie version, a case of derivation twice removed — Collins’ book was an acknowledged tribute to the Japanese comic Lone Wolf and Cub. In other words, we have a movie based on a comic based on another comic. It’s no wonder, then, that Road to Perdition is one of the most beautifully crafted films that ever made me come close to falling asleep. The director, Sam Mendes, is the latest gifted filmmaker (his debut was American Beauty) to be a deer caught in the headlights of post-Oscar expectation. Mendes and screenwriter David Self have taken vital, pulpy material and made it pictorial and dull. This story badly needed someone like John Woo, who would’ve spiced it up and made the most of its themes of family, honor, duality, betrayal. Instead it got Mendes, who approaches the story hat in hand, as if it spoke bottomless truths about the human condition.
We’re in Depression-era Illinois, where the amiable old criminal John Rooney (Paul Newman) reigns over his corner of the Capone empire. As in so many stories of this stripe, the old man has a genetic son, Connor (Daniel Craig), a useless hothead, and a like-a-son-to-me, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), his main assassin. (In the book, Sullivan’s name precedes him; people fear him wherever he goes, and he’s nicknamed the Angel of Death. The movie hardly addresses that at all, and leaves out his nickname.) Sullivan has two sons of his own, one of whom, his namesake Michael (Tyler Hoechlin), sneaks into his dad’s car one night and goes along for the ride to find out what he does for a living. Michael finds out, all right; he witnesses a gangland massacre, setting in motion a chain of events that lead to the death of his mother and little brother. The two Michaels hit the road, stopping every so often so that the grim-faced Sullivan (never a bubbly personality to begin with) can pursue vengeance.
It might be possible to go along with Road to Perdition as an iconic mood piece. Conrad L. Hall’s burnished, dark, rain-drenched photography is immaculate, and the film moves with a heavy elegance. But eventually the heaviness sinks the story. There are really no people in Road to Perdition — only archetypes of good or evil — and therefore no performances possible. Hanks, for instance, seems so submerged in tough-guy laconic mannerism he looks drugged half the time. Even the usually vibrant Jude Law, cast (and uglified) as a despicable shutterbug/hit-man, is given nothing to play except the surface that Mendes so attentively photographs. Jennifer Jason Leigh is around briefly (and is wasted) as Sullivan’s doomed wife, but other than her, no women are allowed to taint the elaborate masculine anguish. The movie is full of musing about fathers and sons: fathers who are bad men but good fathers; sons who are disappointments, and sons who shouldn’t want to be like their fathers — this all may mean a lot to men afflicted with macho sentimentality, but female moviegoers may yawn through a lot of Road to Perdition.
Eventually the movie folds up into complete pictorialism. Two key murders — the ones we want to see, the ones this entire creaking revenge melodrama is pointing toward — are secondary to Mendes’ fancy staging; one of them is the first such retribution I can recall that registers visually as an afterthought, as a mirror swings toward the camera and shows us the aftermath. This is self-conscious filmmaking and has nothing to do with the basic needs of the story. Mendes doesn’t even include Collins’ juicy exchange between Sullivan and the murderer of his wife: Connor snarls “I’ll see you in hell,” and Sullivan says, “Hell will be heaven if I can spend eternity making you pay for what you did to her.” There’s pulpy poetry in that; for all its glory of image, this Road to Perdition lacks not only poetry but the unpretentious conviction of pulp.