As an encore to his Oscar-winning debut as director of American Beauty, Sam Mendes sought out the comforts of the familiar. He looked for a story about a father’s quest for redemption. He brought along gifted collaborators like cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and composer Thomas Newman. And he found a script that’s going to strike people as far better than it actually is because of what he was able to do with it.
Ignore for a moment that screenwriter Alan Ball also won an Oscar for American Beauty, and that he went on to create the critically-beloved Six Feet Under. Ball’s competently edgy script really probed little beyond standard-issue suburban angst, and floated ponderous lectures about the beauty of plastic bags. Mendes knocked that competent script so far out of the park that Ball should send him a fruit basket of thanks every day for the rest of his life.
Road to Perdition, Mendes’ much-anticipated directorial follow-up, comes with such a ridiculous pedigree that it started generating Oscar “buzz” before a frame of film was shot. It’s a sturdy story rich with potential left unrealized, but it still often feels like a work of operatic splendor. If anyone besides Mendes gets credit for that sense, it’s a sick, twisted shame.
Set in 1931, Perdition casts Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, an enforcer for an Illinois Irish mob organization led by his surrogate father John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan himself is a distant father to his own son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), which inspires the younger Michael to follow his secretive dad to a rendezvous one night. There, Michael Jr. witnesses a murder committed by Rooney’s hotheaded son Connor (Daniel Craig), which immediately makes the Sullivans’ lives forfeit. After failed attempts to kill them both, Michael and Michael Jr. go on the run for Chicago in search of allies against the Rooneys.
Thus begins a road picture with a father-son bonding dynamic, but don’t be surprised if you get hooked by smaller fragments around the edges of that center. Road to Perdition overflows with memorable supporting performances: Jude Law as the assassin on the Sullivans’ trail; Kevin Chamberlin as a garrulous bouncer; and the always sparkling Dylan Baker as an effete mob accountant. Good films pull you into their world with a feel of being fully fleshed-out beyond casting the star. Road to Perdition pops with energy even when the face on screen doesn’t belong to a Hanks or a Newman.
In fact, it probably pops with more energy. The heart of Road to Perdition should have been the juxtaposition of the two pairs of fathers and sons, and on a very superficial level, it is. Tentative mutual discovery emerges on the Sullivans’ travels, while Rooney smacks Connor around a little bit for his stupidity. But instead of finding a real weight in the collision of these four lives, David Self’s script (adapted from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins) shunts the potentially fascinating Rooneys off to the periphery and oversimplifies the Sullivans’ interaction to questions about Michael Jr’s favorite school subjects. Even as you know it’s heading for a big emotional payoff, Road to Perdition can never quite deliver big emotion.
What it does deliver is more of the budding genius that is Sam Mendes. Besides being smart enough to surround himself with talent like Hall and Newman, Mendes has an eye for slick compositions and bravura set pieces. Characters slide out of the shadows like ghostly apparitions in their own lives. Reflections in glass turn into the difference between life and death. The pounding beat of a speakeasy gradually uncovers a hidden gun, and the clackity-clack of a stock ticker drowns out a warning signal. By the time Road to Perdition reaches its vengeance-is-mine finale, the filmmaking “wow factor” will have long since won you over.
Just don’t make the mistake of giving David Self credit for what you’ll like about the film. Road to Perdition wants to hit the heavy you-reap-what-you-sow notes of the Godfather films, but it’s so much better at the electric riffs of visual style. For Sam Mendes, it’s just another movie, another competent script turned into art. If I were Mr. Self, I’d be looking for an address to send that fruit basket.