Road to Perdition

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Road to
, 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
incredibly 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
). 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

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.

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