Road to Perdition is the third (yes, the third) comic book adaptation in as many months. It follows on the heels of the wonderful Spider-Man and the forgettable MIIB. It is also director Sam Mendes' follow up to his Oscar winning American Beauty. Is Mendes able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? Well, yes and no. While the film is lovingly constructed and beautifully produced, it left me decidedly underwhelmed emotionally.
From a technical viewpoint, Road to Perdition should be required viewing for all Film 101 courses in North America. For starters, it is undeniably beautiful to look at. The cinematography is the most stunning I have seen since Full Metal Jacket (a film as riveting as Road to Perdition is dispassionate). Like New York City in a Woody Allen film, the damp, dark streets of the movie are almost a character unto themselves. Time and place are convincingly evoked, and no expense was spared for the actors' wardrobe. Also, Mendes' direction is more assurred here than in his last film. Although slow, the narrative is seamless in that events transpire logically. The script also has many good ideas. I especially liked the contrast between family and "family" in the film. For example, Paul Newman's character will not betray his blood son who has been stealing from him, but he will betray his serrogate "son", Tom Hanks. As well, Hanks' Michael Sr. will oppose his "father", John Rooney, in order to save his biological son, Michael Jr. Other solid genre themes (the hunter becoming the hunted, the sins of the father, redemption versus damnation, the destructive nature of vengence) are touched on as well to good effect.
I really do have to touch on the acting in this film as well, which is as stellar as you would assume. Hanks gives the performance of his erratic career (come on, don't try and tell me that Forrest Gump was good acting) as a father who only wants to ensure that his son has the opportunity to grow up without becoming like him, while Newman actually builds upon his legacy. Special mention must be made of Jude Law, who is better here than I have ever seen him. His hitman Maguire is a force of nature, a man whose pretentions are only exceeded by his sadism. Someone should just mail the Oscar to this guy now and save us all alot of trouble.
Road to Perdition waives its right to develop any dramatic tension or suspense in its very first scene (those who have seen the film know what I'm talking about). Now, I don't think that inevitability in a film is a bad thing at all. Everyone knew that the boat was going to sink in Titanic. However, that movie developed characters so endearing that we found ourselves caring about who would eventually go down with the ship. Similarily, we all knew in the Blair Witch Project that the three kids would never be heard from again. This did not stop us from hoping that somehow, the ending could be altered. The key to this type of storytelling is the script. If we know where the actors' journey will lead them, we must care about them in order to want to share the trip. The problem with Road to Perdition is that no one in this film is particularily sympathetic, so I found it difficult to work up much involvement in their problems. Aside from the wonderful Jude Law (more on him later), the film is populated not so much by characters as by types. There is not even a villain I could love to hate. Tom Hanks' character comes across as more misguided and pathetic than evil, so seeing him become the recipient of a deserved fate awarded me no satisfaction. The actors try hard and do a wonderful job, but the script and the sluggish pace work against them. Whenever anything happens in this movie, it feels as if a piece has been added to a puzzle that we have already seen completed. As a dramatization, I felt the film was somewhat lacking. When you imagine you are hearing a clock ticking, it's not a good sign.
Another issue I had with the entertainment value of Road to Perdition was the relentlessly downbeat feeling of the film. There is no doubt that this film aspires to be a tragedy; however, the film does not merely suggest its intentions, it beats the viewer over the head with them. In its favour, the film is confidently directed by Mendes, who seems to understand the precepts of gangster films. Despite all the necessary elements (good acting, moody score, breathtaking cinematography, seamless storyline), the film felt strangely flat and lethargic, even in a theatre filled with people. I can only imagine how much these sensations will be heightened as the result of its reduction to the small screen for video and DVD. It seems that in an attempt to create an atmosphere, Mendes forgot to infuse the movie with any soul. The film is good, but it could have been a masterpiece.
This movie was a difficult one for me to review. I am here because of the connections I made over at Comics2Film.com, and this is one of "our" movies. I almost feel like a traitor for not passionately endorsing it. You can't please all of the people all of the time, and this is one of those times. I thought the movie was expertly produced, but I did not become emotionally invested in it. Seeing this film was like eating vanilla ice cream; it was good and I don't regret doing it. But was it exciting? Was I dying to do it again as soon as I finished? Did I rave about it to my friends?
Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is no.