Posted: 07/12/2002


Road to Perdition


by Del Harvey

Beautifully photographed film version of a Prohibition-era tragedy of loss and revenge.

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Based upon a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, Road To Perdition is a beautifully photographed film that I have to say I enjoyed. However, I cannot honestly say how much of it I enjoyed because of my knowing that its origins were as a - yes, I’ll say it - comic book. This very thing is something the Japanese have been doing quite successfully for many years; turning comic books into films. And when you think about it, the logic of the thing is inescapable. A comic book is a collection of scenes woven together by a story combining narrative and dialogue. The scenes are typically very dramatic and impressive, with strong pacing and accurate character arcs built in (an arc is the logical progression for that character in a given scenario). When thought of in this way, a film script is really only a short step away in format.
Okay, back to Mendes’ film.

The story takes place in Rockford, Illinois, during the dirt-poor days of Prohibition when mobsters emerged around the country, many controlling their small areas like fiefdoms. Such is the case with John Rooney (Paul Newman) and son Connor (Daniel Craig), a family who not only is tied in to Al Capone’s mob, but seems to control every business in their smallish town. What Connor lacks in intelligence, common sense, and courage, he makes up for in avarice, self-indulgence, and self-destruction. Blood kin and the ‘bad’ son, he is the dark shadow to Michael Sullivan, Sr. (Tom Hanks), enforcer, bright light, and the nearest thing to a real son that old man Rooney will every know. But the old line about blood being thicker than water is a truth that is deeper than any other, and that is the crux of Max Allan Collins’ story.

Connor schemes his way into trouble for the family, making Michael the scapegoat. When Connor’s hot-headedness causes the death of yet another one of their men, one Finn McGovern, Michael is there with his ominous black Thompson Submachine Gun, saving his worthless, would-be brother’s ass. One of Sullivan’s two boys, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), has snuck along and witnessed the entire scene. This unknowingly sets into place a sequence of events, initiated by Connor, which begins with the violent deaths of Sullivan’s wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger son Peter (Liam Aiken), and continues through a series of episodes as Michaels Sr. and Jr. set out to avenge the death of their family.

Mendes last directed American Beauty, a wonderful film which was, at its core, a tragedy, and one that ended with a violent death. Road To Perdition has that much in common with Mendes’ earlier work. At the same time, many scenes, certain atmospheres, combinations of light and background music, all left this reviewer with an impression of the work of Arthur Penn. The aforementioned cinematography by Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), is alive with subtle shades, heightened contrasts and delicate hues. The soundtrack, by Thomas Newman (Son of composer Alfred Newman; nephew of Lionel Newman and Emil Newman; and cousin of Randy) gets my vote as one of the year’s best. Art Director Richard L. Johnson and Set Decorator Nancy Haigh capture the essence of the Midwest during Prohibition perfectly.

Newman, beginning to show his 77 years, is still a powerhouse actor. His scenes really are few and his dialogue not much, but in this master’s hands they are enough, and they are everything. Hanks’ character of Sullivan is really given full dimension thanks mostly to Newman’s depth of character. There is no back story given for Hanks’ character, yet he remains the most complex. Hanks pulls this off quite capably, but it really is surprising when you think about it and realize we don’t know where this man came from. Jude Law is right on target as Maguire, the “gifted” hit man who photographs murders for local newspapers. He is fast proving one of the most talented, most wide ranging of the current crop of young actors. Stanley Tucci, another superb actor, has a minor supporting role as Al Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti. Like Newman, he makes much of very little.

Jennifer Jason Leigh seems barely a blur on the screen, but her gentle smile and shy stance lend themselves perfectly to the memory character that is Annie; a lasting impression of all the warmth and love that is home and Mother. The two young boys, Liam Aiken and Tyler Hoechlin, are very, very good. They present that young perspective on the family which is so crucial to this type of story. Tyler Hoechlin never seems to falter or show any sign that he is about anything but being the character of young Michael Sullivan, Jr.

Is Road To Perdition all that? Yes, and then some. I don’t know that it can be called art, but it is certainly going to be one of those films which becomes a “classic,” resigned to many critic’s lists for years to come. Personally, I missed a couple of those epic touches present in the comic book, such as Michael Jr.’s surprise at hearing his father referred to as the Angel of Death, or that great line spoken by Michael Sr., “Pray you never find yourself on my road…”

Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Southern California, is a devout Chicago Bears fan, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College for giggles.

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