Sunday, March 25, 2012

Comica Obscura: Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition (2002, Sam Mendes)

The title of this marathon, Comica Obscura, is apt in more ways than one. The most obvious reference it makes is to the relative obscurity of the source material which inspired each film under evaluation. Another is that the movies themselves are not known for being adaptations of comic books. This second notion is perhaps more pertinent if only because most of the films reviewed thus far have felt as though they could have been regular entries into their respective genres. When learning that they are, in fact, the cinematic translations of certain comics, one begins to wonder if the comic creators themselves were not inspired by films. There is perhaps a no more fitting example than Road to Perdition, the comic which was written by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, unquestionably inspired by the famous gangster pictures of yesteryear. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter David Self came along in 2002 and adapted the book for the screen, but one could just as easily assume it to be another classic entry in the gangster genre.

Set in the winter of 1931 in the norther United States, Road to Perdition is the tale of how a father and his son became closer than ever before, but were awarded only the briefest of periods to cherish the experience, in addition to being under constant duress from. The father is Michael Sullian (Tom Hanks), an enforcer, or hitman for crime leader John Rooney (Paul Newman). The son is Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin). John in fact sees his hit man as something of a son, and the latter returns the sentiments, viewing John very much as a father figure. John's real son, Connor (Daniel Craig) tags along with Michael on some errands, but lacks the former's cool head. If things do not go as he likes, well, he can become trigger happy. The nucleus if this tightly knit connection of partners and friends unravels the night when Michael and Connor are off to pay a former partner a visit (Ciaran Hinds). It turns out that the fellow has not been as loyal as he should, which greatly displease Connor, to the point that the hot head shoots the him dead. The problem is that Michael's youngest son, Peter, had sneaked into their car, unbeknownst to the two hitmen, and witnesses the murder. Despite Michael's reassurance that his boy shall never utter a word about the event, Conner, staying true to his foolish self, personally kills Peter and his mother one night while Michael is away. The line in the sand is drawn: Michael leaves town with Michael junior and together they plan their vengeance on Connor and John. The mob has sent one of its own hitmen however, Harlen Maguire (Jude Law), a clever and deadly individual if there ever was one.

Apologies for the lengthy plot synopsis above, but there are a lot of little details the film concerns itself with before getting to the main thrust of the story. Glued together though, all the details add to perfectly set up the surprisingly emotional and gripping drama which infolds as the father and son duo of Michaels, in their own peculiar way, get to know each other more than they ever had previously when life was good. Road to Perdition is a terrifically satisfying piece of cinema on so many levels. For one, it possesses emotional heft which evolves organically. There are of course various technical qualities about the movie which help enhance the experience, and they shall be studied shortly, but at its bare bone essentials, the film is simply very well written and directed. Describing how the film satisfies on a dramatic level is touchy, because it can easily be argued that it knows exactly what beats to play, when to push the buttons and how to make everything fall perfectly into place. By the film's end, the characters have lived their story arcs and their emotional trials have reached conclusions. In other words, the story wraps up nicely. Yet, that sort of a description does the film a disservice given how maturely Mendes and company play their cards. The character relations are so well set up that by the time little Peter witnesses Connor grave error, the viewer not only instantly feels that something bad has happened, but that the potential consequences might be horrific for everyone involved. Road to Perdition is a real drama a REAL drama, in which all the moments are earned, all make sense, all feel just right given the specific scenes. The story is, in essence, masterfully crafted, harkening back to a the sort of movies that were made back in the 30s and 40s, albeit with more modern acting styles and cinematography. The film is in that sense timeless. Loyalty to a group, love, friendship, lost opportunities and devotion to one's family regardless of how stupid family member is. Road to Perdition has everything. 


Of course, with a cast as varied and accomplished as this one, it is small wonder that everything about the drama clicks so well. Tom Hanks is incredible as the quiet, reserved, professional but ultimately very passionate hitman Michael Sullian Sr. In boggles the mind that he rarely ever plays such roles. He seems to have been born to play the character. This is a man who is caught between a rock and a hard place at most times in his adult life. At first he refused to reveal the nature of his profession to the children, but under the current circumstances, that is no longer an option. Now the terrible circumstances are forcing him to go after the man who gave him his purpose in life, John Rooney. Everything about Michael is a struggle and Hanks can play that note like few other actors can. What can be said about Paul Newman, who does not have a huge amount of screen time, but leaves a lasting impact. He can be so kind and yet to rough. The pleasure his has when playing with Michael's kids is juxtaposed with the ferociousness with which he verbally attacks his own son Connor at a dinner table one evening when he forces Connor to apologize for his stupid error. That scene alone is tremendous. While Tyler Hoechlin does not receive top billing, there is no doubt that this is just as much his movie as it is Tom Hanks'. In fact, the story is told much more through his own eyes than it is through his father's. Hoelchlin balances out a great sense of maturity with some leftover innocence a 12 year old boy should have (under the particular circumstances of learning his father is a killer and they themselves are on the run from one). The review could go on and on with about the performances, but there are too many good actors. An entire article could be written about the cast and what they add the to picture. Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci and, lest he be forgotten, Jude Law, who plays the strangest character he ever has. 


Last but not least, there are the film's visual and aural merits, both of which exude a craftsmanship that all too rarely seen in contemporary Hollywood productions. There are plenty of beautifully shot movies, many of which are indeed period pieces, but Road to Perdition certainly, certainly finishes in the top 5 of most lovingly shot pictures of the last decade, perhaps of the last few decades even. When a shot of a man wearing a trench coat and hat in a storm is enough to arrest the viewer in amazement, there is something special evolving before his or her eyes. Mendes and his crew have not 'made' a movie, they have 'sculpted' a movie, or 'painted' one. It is too beautifully structured and lit to use a term as mundane as 'made.' 'Made' is too vulgar for Road to Perdition. Costumes are stunning, and so is the cinematography and effect visual tricks, like when Connor leaves Michael's house after having shot the man wife and youngest son. Michael junior walks up to the house, sees Connor in the doorway and remains still, aghast for a moment. Cut to a shot of the viewer looking into the doorway window at Connor, who suddenly starts combing his hair, as if oblivious to the presence of Michael junior just outside. Cut again, time inside the doorway just behind Connor, revealing that all the killer sees in the window is a reflection of himself due to the house's lighting. That little moment is amazing and so smartly set up. Cinematography fans rejoice, the movie is chock full of them. The score, supplied by Thomas Newman, is a thing of beauty as well. In a pleasantly creative twist, the music avoids any pure action beats, preferring to engage the viewer emotionally. Manipulative? Sure, but we live in an age where apparently manipulative scores are a bad thing. Phooey. The music in Road to Perdition is a work of art.

At the time of this article's publication, director Sam Mendes is in the production stages of the latest James Bond movie. Who knows how that will turn out, but if his handling of violent material in Road to Perdition is any indication, both from a narrative and visual standpoint, fans should rest assured. The movie trumps almost all other contemporary gangster films, ironically because it meshes the modern aesthetic with some old fashioned sensibilities. Do yourself a favour and correct the error of your ways if you have not seen this movie.

Done here? Go and find out how Bill escaped from Jude Law by visiting his Movie Emporium.