Archive Review: Road to Perdition (2002)

Anyone who has to direct another movie after his first feature film won him a Best Director Oscar, has to be scared out of his mind. How do you top that? Seriously. Although “Road to Perdition” is an impassioned story (based on a graphic novel) of an Irish mobster and his son trying to stay alive, its screenplay is not the opus that “American Beauty” was. So, how do you approach your next directorial project when the bar is absurdly high? Whatever Sam Mendes did, it worked, because “Perdition” is just as beautiful and poetic.

The posthumous Oscar for cinematographer Conrad L. Hall is much deserved. “Perdition” is a story that takes death rather lightly with a very high body count and as seen in “American Beauty,” Mendes will settle for nothing but the most visually memorable and poetic of tragic climaxes and deaths. These two make quite a team, inflating what’s just a good but not great script into a rich and striking film. They milk everything they can out of the film’s most poignant moments and convince you of that feeling that you’re watching incredible, meaningful cinema when it’s just a very good/interesting story at best.

Taking place in 1930s Illinois and Chicago, “Perdition” is about Michael Sullivan, a hit man (Hanks) with two young boys working for an Irish mob boss John Rooney (Newman) — loosely based on real gangster John Looney — who gave him everything he’s ever had. When a curious Michael Jr. wants to know what his father does, he accidentally witnesses a hit gone wrong, which puts Sullivan in bad standing with his mob family. Rooney then has his son, Connor (Daniel Craig), off Sullivan’s family. Sullivan and Michael Jr. manage to survive and flee to Chicago, where they are still wanted dead. Soon, father and son must be honest with each other in order to survive and Sullivan will do anything to get his revenge yet still keep his son away from it all.

The cast is great, but an actor with Tom Hanks’ versatile talent has no business playing a hit man of few words. Perhaps the notion of a audiences thinking it’s “just another mob film” scared Mendes and other producers into getting a marquee name, but all you have to do is say Paul New– and the old people start flocking. Newman gets a supporting Oscar nod for nothing but the respect he commands of the camera and on the screen. A mob boss is such an intriguing role for a then mostly retired famous actor and it definitely gives “Perdition” something give it that instant classic feel.

“Perdition” avoids telling us all the mob stuff we already know from watching “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” in terms of organized crime life being about loyalty, respect and family, etc. It jumps right into the fresh angle it’s taking: the relationship between a hit man and his son. It’s a story of guarding innocence in the face of harsh, immoral reality.

Most of the film is just a thriller with Sullivan finding ways to get his revenge while avoiding the man hired to whack him (Jude Law). There’s a lot of killing and the general rule has always been the more killing, the less meaningful death becomes and the more silly and less serious a film is (theoretically why action movies don’t get taken seriously). But Mendes and Hall take exception, making sure these deaths will give you enough chills to forget that you’re tired of seeing people get shot. Lots of films have you guessing who will die — “Perdition” has you guessing what order.

The script is good, just a little deliberate. It’s not shy about letting you know what it’s about and what its themes are, which is always good for some viewers and souring for others. But in the end its the thoughtful and artistic eye of Mendes that wins out as the film closes with a thrilling, beautiful and near-perfect climax. Mob movies might have gotten old for some people already, but it would be inadvisable to skip out on such great film-making for that reason.

4.5/5 Stars

Road to Perdition (2002)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by David Self, Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner (graphic novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Paul Newman, Jude Law

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