Road to Perdition (Mendes, 2002) — 10 Years Later

Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition was not officially Paul Newman’s last movie. He did some television work and Pixar’s Cars after Perdition was released, but it looks and feels very much like a curtain call…or a torch passing.

The idea of Tom as this generation’s Newman may seem a bit odd today. At the time, however, Hanks was coming off four Academy Award nominations (and two wins) in seven years. He has not been nominated since. His credits in the last decade include vocal work in animated films (Toy Story franchise, The Polar Express), The Da Vinci Code and its sequel, The LadykillersCharlie Wilson’s War, The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. One particularly striking fact about that list: the last five films on it were all directed by Academy Award winners (and Charlie Wilson screenwriter Aaron Sorkin would subsequently garner a statuette for The Social Network) yet they have an average Metacritic score of 46. Hanks directed himself and Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne, a film which scored even lower with critics.

Because Road to Perdition‘s director, Sam Mendes, himself had an Oscar for his debut film, American Beauty, it is easy to forget that Perdition was only his second directorial credit. Since then, he has directed three more films: Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Away We Go. Those film also received decidedly mixed reviews with Metacritic scores in the fifties and sixties, though all three are certified “fresh” at (Jarhead, the lowest rated of the three, comes in at 61%, a single point above the the “fresh” line.)

What happened? If, like me, you think acting and directing is at least a little like riding a bike–you don’t just forget how to do it–subsequent work may call into question previous judgments. But surely we can’t contend that nobody who ever makes a good work of art will ever go on to produce an inferior one?  Perhaps such swings of fortune in the careers of even our most gifted artists says something about just how hard it is to make a quality film. Perhaps it makes us question our assumptions about auteur theory and the amount of control over a finished product that the principal participants have. Is making a successful film as much a product of timing and luck as it is the steadfast application of skill? Is there another, less obvious explanation for the perceived gap in quality between Perdition and the subsequent work of some of its principals? Revisiting the film seems like a logical first step in wrestling with these questions.

What I Said Then

Road to Perdition was ranked second on my list of favorite films of 2002. In my annual review at Viewpoint (a blog precursor to this site), I wrote:

I was not a big fan of American Beauty, but director Sam Mendes’s sophomore effort had it all: atmosphere, a mythic story, knock out performances by Tom Hanks (when was the last time he failed to deliver the goods?) and Jude Law, and strong support from Paul Newman and Stanley Tucci.  The film also had what so many action-dramas lack: intelligence.  Yes, Hanks’s conflicted good man in a bad profession is a bit of a stock character, but he creates a sense of understanding in the opening scenes that makes us want to forgive him his profession, even when we know we can’t.  Only an utterly predictable, unnecessary, and melodramatic ending knocks it from the number one spot.

What I Say Now

Road to Perdition holds up reasonably well after a decade. It had been long enough since I had seen it that I didn’t recall every detail of the plot. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the cast. That I had largely forgotten the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh can be attributed to how small her role actually is, but Daniel Craig (pre-James Bond) has a substantive part as Newman’s son. Ciaran Hinds and Stanley Tucci are also strong in supporting roles. The only performance that doesn’t look quite as strong in retrospect may be Jude Law’s photographer-assassin, who is is a little too self-consciously cool and quirky for my tastes. Then again, it’s hardly Law’s fault that Javier Bardem’s take on a similar role is probably too fresh now not to make comparisons.

Hanks’s performance is not bad, though I often felt that he lacked the physical presence to feel truly menacing. It is hard for me to know how much this comes from his screen persona and how much comes from the structure of the story. For most of the second act, Hanks’s character is in danger, and through most of the first he is filmed from a distance, suggesting, I suspect, the emotional distance between him and his son, from whose point of view the story is told. The last encounter between Newman and Hanks is shot in such a way so as to be picturesque but to keep us at arm’s length. The sum total of all these decisions is that while the performance is adequate the character never develops beyond the broad outlines we begin with.

 Road to Perdition received one Academy Award, for Best Cinematography. That honor went to Conrad L. Hall, who also worked with director Sam Mendes on American Beauty and was similarly awarded for that film. (Hall’s third career Oscar was for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) I have never been a fan of American Beauty, but in retrospect, I realized how many of my friends who esteem the film do so because of the cinematography. It is worth speculating about how much Mendes’s career arc coming back to earth a bit has to do with the loss of a valuable colleague and collaborator. (Hall died in 2003.) That’s not to imply that a director’s only job or achievement is coordinating with the cinematographer. No matter what side of the auteur theory debate you come down on, though, it is easy to see how adjusting to a new team is a very real issue.

Perdition looks great. There is a cool, sleek look to it that gives it more of a noir feel and helps distinguish it from The Godfather‘s earthy browns and less stark contrasts that helped emphasize intimacy. There were times (as with the previously mentioned climactic encounter between the two stars) where I wondered if Perdition wasn’t trying too hard to be picturesque. I have not read the graphic novel on which the film is based, but I would not be surprised to find deliberate echoes in particular shots to the source material. Much as with Watchmen, the comic book can be read in some instances as a predesigned storyboard, and while that can often rob the film of depth that is created by stylistic variety, it does allow for a number of memorable tableaux.

The Verdict

I’ve cooled somewhat on Road to Perdition, though it will always get a sentimental bump for the presence of Newman. I think that focusing on the child’s point-of-view hurts the film. The things that are most interesting happen in the scenes where he is momentarily tucked away and the grown ups can square off. The cast and crew have enough talent to make some ultimately conventional material polished and effective, but the film doesn’t sing the way I had hoped, doesn’t reveal new layers on subsequent examination. It’s well done, and worth seeing, but once you’ve seen it once you’ve exhausted most of what it has to offer.



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