The penultimate film in the Comica Obscura Marathon brings Tom Hanks and Paul Newman together, what’s not to like!
Screenplay By: David Self
Directed By: Sam Mendes
I first came across Road To Perdition as a blind buy. I was at a Best Buy, or it may have been the now defunct Circuit City, and I glanced Tom Hanks on the cover of a film I hadn’t at that time heard of. You see, I was a film lover around 2003, but I wasn’t someone who knew a lot about film, if you get what I mean? All I knew was that Tom Hanks was my favorite actor and he was on the cover and the DVD was on sale, that sounded like a surefire win to me. In the past few years I’ve grown out of the blind buying habit. These days my blind buys aren’t blind so much as they are informed buys of directors or actors I know and trust. Road To Perdition was one of my last true blind buys, and it was a fitting way to bid adieu to that period in my life.
I fell in love with Road To Perdition before I knew much about Sam Mendes. It wasn’t until after I knew that I loved the film that I realized Mr. Mendes was the same man who had directed American Beauty. Now that I look back on it I can see elements of American Beauty in Road To Perdition. That’s not to say that Road To Perdition is a copy of American Beauty because elements in this case do not equal the same movie. Mr. Mendes maintains the same slow burn in Road To Perdition that served him well in American Beauty, and he works towards the same obvious destination. In Road To Perdition, just like American Beauty, it’s not a question of how the film ends but the journey the viewer takes to get to said end.
The journey in Road To Perdition is not one of self-discovery or reaffirmation of the soul. The world that the characters of Road To Perdition inhabit doesn’t allow for such lamentations and meditations. The characters who do spend time ruminating on their own place in the world die, the bouncer at Calvino’s. Or they survive simply by virtue of their association with someone who shares the world view of the film, Michael Jr.. The times that the characters live in help to inform this gruff world view just as much as their actions. When we see a group of men sitting at a train depot reading the paper we know that they are not thinking about their place in the world but where their next dime and their next meal will come from.
The world Sam Mendes has taken from the comic book and transplanted to the big screen is rough, but at the same time it is luscious looking. It shows the spoils of the lifestyle chosen by the Rooney’s, the Rance’s, and the Sullivan’s right next to the downfalls of such a life. When Michael Sr. finally gets his wish and is traveling through the hotel to meet with Connor I was struck by how vibrant and colorful the hallways were. The color patterns stick out just as much for their vibrancy as they do for their patterns. It would have been very easy for Mr. Mendes, Conrad Hall, the cinematographer, and Nancy Haigh, the set designer, to have created a look as drab as the world. But they didn’t, they created a duality of view that allows the bleakness of the characters lives to shine just as much as the lushness of the sets.
At the very heart of Road To Perdition are the performances. The film looks beautiful, and it’s direction is stellar. But, the film gains traction and becomes something special because of its cast. The interplay between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks is sublime. When they look at each other the entire story and heartbreak of these two characters is seen in their eyes. The dogged admiration combined with an inability to fully comprehend the world he lives in is put forth wonderfully by the young Tyler Hoechlin. However, the film is buoyed by its smaller performances. Dylan Baker isn’t given a lot of screen time as the smarmy Mr. Rance, but he makes the most of that time. Stanley Tucci spends less than five minutes in Mr. Mendes’ picture but in those five minutes his character makes an impact.
There are a lot of gangster films across the landscape of the cinematic universe. There are a lot of gangster flicks that glorify the violence of the gangster existence, love the lifestyle, and present dishonorable people as honorable. Road To Perdition avoids all of those pitfalls of the gangster flick by presenting deeply flawed characters who engender sorrow in place of honor. The violence is present, but it isn’t glorified and it is often fleeting with disastrous consequences. The lifestyle is hollow and it tears those who live it apart. Sam Mendes’ film is well aware of the rest of the cinematic work about the gangster. Mr. Mendes avoids the thrill of the payoff, he expounds on the harshness of the journey and in doing so Road To Perdition is a unique and worthwhile gangster film.
Go and read what Edgar has to say about the gangster happenings at Between The Seats.