Despite what the title might indicate, the intended destination of “Road to Perdition” is obviously the stage of the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, where the 2002 Oscars will be distributed next spring. It’s the sophomore effort from Sam Mendes, the British stage director who won the award his first time around for “American Beauty,” and it stars none other than Tom Hanks, in one of those serious roles for which the Academy seems ready to reward him automatically with a nomination, if not a win. (He’s become the male Meryl Streep.) The picture also been impeccably fashioned, with rich, beautifully textured cinematography, emphasizing deep russet tones, by renowned veteran Conrad L. Hall (Oscars for “Butch Cassidy” and “Beauty”) and outstanding production design by David Gassner (AA for “Bugsy”)–the transformation of downtown Chicago into a replica of its depression-era self, in particular, is exquisitely achieved, in terms of both exteriors and interiors, and the attention to period detail throughout is astounding. Moreover, it boasts an outstanding supporting cast, including Oscar-winner (and industry favorite) Paul Newman and up-and-coming Jude Law. And for a Hollywood film it deals with matters of relative moral complexity–the script is about a father who tries to reconnect with the adolescent son he’s long ignored while atoning, in the only way he knows, for the past life of violence and crime that led to the murders of his wife and younger child.
Nonetheless, Mendes’ film, while elegant and sumptuous, has rather pulpish origins, and its pomposity unduly inflates the source material. David Self’s script is based on what’s termed a “graphic novel” by Max Allan Collins–a euphemism for an elaborate comic book. That information isn’t intended to denigrate–it’s absurd to dismiss comics as kids’ stuff anymore, and Collins’ work is at most a distant cousin to such titles as “Spider-Man” or “The Hulk.” But graphic novels, by their very nature, have a difficult time achieving the depth and resonance of purely literary ones; they have other strengths, to be sure–energy, visual flair, rich atmosphere– but subtlety, especially in characterization, isn’t ordinarily their forte. And the choices that Mendes has made play up the weaknesses endemic to its source. Certainly the careful, highly cultivated images he, Hall and the design team have crafted show a draftsman’s eye, and are faithful to the imagery of a dark comic. But he adopts a somber, almost funereal tone that accentuates the piece’s pretensions to dramatic seriousness when, in fact, it’s little more than a gangster rewriting of the hoary old revenge story, so common to westerns, about the stern, laconic loner who goes after the powerful men who killed his family. There’s one episode–a cannily-rendered montage of unusual bank robberies–that interrupts the solemnity with some welcome verve and wry humor; it’s a refreshing change of pace in a picture that starts with a depiction of a wake and often feels like one, with all the usual conventions of the genre being paraded across the screen in a series of near-static tableaux. (Even the moody, Irish-flavored score by Thomas Newman briefly perks up in accompaniment, as if the composer had suddenly been awakened from reverie.) Otherwise, though, the film is just too gloomy and torpid for its own good, however striking each individual shot might be. The studied deliberation merely emphasizes the thinness of the underlying narrative.
The plot is actually very simple. In the winter of 1931, Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a quietly efficient enforcer–and a surrogate son in virtually every respect–for Irish mob boss John Rooney (Newman) in Rock Island, an Illinois town on the Mississippi River coast. Unfortunately, Rooney has the rabid, undisciplined son so common in such fictional situations–in this case a jealous, unstable fellow called Connor (Daniel Craig). While on a joint assignment to talk some sense into Finn McGovern (Ciaran Hinds), a gang leader whose brother was recently terminated for lining his pockets with Rooney money, Connor kills Finn–a murder witnessed by Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), a kid devoted to juvenile lit, who’s tagged along, unbeknownst to his old man, to discover what “heroic” line of work his mysterious old man is in. Though Sullivan swears that the boy will keep silent, Connor isn’t at all confident: in a botched effort to kill Michael Jr., he slaughters Sullivan’s wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and, by accident, his younger son Peter (Liam Aiken), while simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to have Michael Sr. assassinated by proxy. Soon father and surviving son are on the way to Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), Al Capone’s henchman in Chicago, for a job and permission to take vengeance; but instead the pair soon find themselves pursued by contract killer Maguire (Law), a cold-blooded photographer who lives to take pictures of his own victims. Sullivan puts pressure on the Capone operation by systematically denuding downstate banks of the dirty funds they’re secretly holding for the mob; in the process he and the boy, who have always been curiously distant, bond. Of course, their efforts inevitably lead to confrontation with the Rooneys and Maguire, with the boy’s future hanging in the balance: will the innocent lad be dragged into the same violent life as his father, or will the older man be able to save him from that fate?
“Road to Perdition” is thus an elegiac coming-of-age tale, about a boy’s forced maturation while coming to know his father, as well as a gangland revenge story. But though it’s beautiful in every external respect, Mendes’ portentous style enervates the material rather than ennobling it. The cast is all too true to the directorial approach: they pose more often than they act. Hanks, looking somewhat heavier than usual and rather lost beneath a moustache, is surprisingly stilted and nondescript as Sullivan, while Leigh is radiant but vacuous in the much shorter role of his wife. Newman is an icon, of course, and he brings his customary air of quiet authority to the older Rooney’s mixture of false joviality and deep regret, while Tucci makes Nitti a smooth operator indeed; but Law’s characterization is pretty much reduced to a bowler hat and bow- legged walk, and Craig doesn’t make the callow, cruel Connor as frighteningly pathetic as he should have been. Hinds has a vivid cameo, but Dylan Baker hams it up too much as an effete Capone-affiliated accountant. The most serious casting miscalculation, though, is Hoechlin. He strikes the right note of sadness, to be sure, but he offers little beyond a kind of generalized impassivity, failing to generate the requisite audience sympathy.
“Road to Perdition” is obviously paved with good intentions, but ultimately it’s a route doesn’t go very far. Comparisons have already been drawn between it and “The Godfather,” but the picture is more like a combination of “Miller’s Crossing” (some of the mood and imagery of which it obviously emulates) and “Billy Bathgate” (with which it shares the theme of an innocent introduced to a violent world and, unhappily, a rather colorless young protagonist). In the end, the film is gorgeously crafted but extremely self-conscious and all too self-important.