Road To Perdition (2002, Sam Mendes, USA)
For my first review, I thought I’d start with one of my favourites.
As this review includes a some detailed analysis, there may be spoilers.
If I had to describe this film in one word, it would be ‘beautiful’. Everything about this film is beautiful – the narrative, the acting, the music, and clever cinematography work together to produce this beautiful atmosphere about every scene. It is pure art – there is so much intricate detail, yet the story boils down to such simplicity of love and innocence. A work of genius by Sam Mendes and crew.
Road to Perdition, set in 1930’s America, tells the story of assassin Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) whose son witnesses a murder by him and his crew and as a result, both must flee from the men hired to silence them. The adventure that they embark on together is both inspiring and heart wrenching with a touch of light comedy. Not only does twelve-year-old Michael Sullivan Jr. find himself having to aid his father in the most grown up of tasks, but Mike Sullivan’s fatherhood is put to the test when he must care for his son alone, whilst dealing with the grief of his lost family, killed by his own colleagues, and protecting them both against the threat of ruthless lunatic hitman, Harlen Maguire. As father and son become partners in crime and Sullivan Sr. struggles to solve the mystery of the colleagues that betrayed him, we see their relationship grow as they cling to each other in desperation to survive.
The brilliance of the plot helps drive this film from the start. There is that painful irony in the idea of a boy who idealizes his father before he discovers that he is a murderer, and on top of this, how Sullivan Sr. must convert from an assassin to a loving father as he is being hunted himself by a fellow hitman. As much as anything, it is a story about trust – Sullivan must trust his son to help him and Michael Jr. must trust his father to protect him. Then there is the betrayal, when Sullivan’s boss turns on him after having treated him like his own son. And then, out of the blue is the unexpected friendship with the lonely couple that they seek for help, with no option but to trust these strangers. The tests that the Sullivan’s go through and the development of their characters is inspiring, creating a great emotional plot. Screenwriter David Self and Mendes managed to find the perfect balance between the melancholic grief of the deaths of Sullivan’s family, the beauty in the growing bond between father son, and the subtle comedy as we see Michael Jr attempt to help his father in difficult criminal tasks. Of course, since this was based on the graphic novel, Road to Perdition, writers Max Alan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner must also be given credit for the fantastic narrative.
To fully appreciate the story, we must look in-depth into some of the characters and the actors that bring them to life. Tom Hanks is the perfect fit for Sullivan Sr., managing to convey his pain and anger and his love for his son which he finds so difficult to express. Tyler Hoechlin’s performance as Michael Jr. is impressively convincing, from conveying his naivety and innocence to showing the difficulty in leaving his childhood behind in order to cope with horrific experiences and help his father. Rooney, the boss and father figure, is an ambiguous character – while primarily his intentions seemed to be in favour of protecting Sullivan’s family, he chooses to stand by those who hunt down Sullivan. Although, Paul Newman manages to obtain some sympathy from the audience, especially in the phenomenal ‘I’m glad it’s you’ scene that we’ll take a further look later. Lastly, there is the fantastic work of Jude Law who plays the sick-minded murderer, Magurie, hired to go after Sullivan. He completely succeeds in becoming the terrifying villain who makes you squirm behind a pillow but at the same time is so full of evil and so repulsive that it’s brilliant.
It may be to the films advantage that director, Sam Mendes, has a fantastic reputation in both theatre and film. His theatre background is obvious in the cleverly crafted sequences which fit together perfectly with the rollercoaster of suspense and emotion created in the plot. Yes, this is the man whose first feature-length movie, American Beauty (1999, USA) won five academy awards and his success continued after Road to Perdition with Jar Head (2006, USA/Germany) and the 007 hit Skyfall (2012, UK). Conrad Hall took this artistic opportunity to create powerful symbolism in the cinematography, an incredible feature which adds to the emotion and displays the themes in a sophisticated manner. From that stomach turning feeling of horror when Sullivan walks out of the bathroom and the mirror turns slowly to reveal the blood on the wall, to the wonderful uses of light in the final scene at the beach house. You have to admire the minimalistic style used to approach this end of the film with the slow editing pace, lack of dialogue and the only sounds being the gentle ‘whooshing’ of waves on the beach. Just as you thought things couldn’t get better, we must acknowledge the exhilarating shout out scene. The way it is shown as emotional and melancholic, as opposed to the usual adrenaline filled action sequence, shocks us emotionally. The haunting silhouettes in the rain, the dreamlike slow-motion, the diegetic sound replaced by tear evoking music… and then the words ‘I’m glad it’s you’ which brings back the personal and realistic feel as we see close-ups of their faces and hear gun shots tearing through the music, leaving eerie silence. No great film is complete without the great soundtrack and Thomas Newman is a great match for Mendes and crew, perfectly judging the mood of each scene, adding to it a whole new emotional content.
As I’m running out of different positive adjectives to describe this work of art, and am feeling emotionally drained just from talking about it, the only last thing I can say is that Road to Perdition didn’t just leave me sobbing, but also left me amazed and inspired by the story and every aspect of its production. I have no criticisms for this film.