The Spool / Filmmaker of the Month
“Road To Perdition” Is Not A Subtle Film
Sam Mendes' Depresson-era gangster fable is as effective as it is in-your-face with its aesthetics.
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Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. Since December sees the release of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917, we’re looking back at the London theater director-turned-filmmaker’s eclectic works. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The first time we get a look at Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is through deep shadow at the end of a long hallway as he places a loaded pistol on a bed. Hanks moves with an air of detached routine, the actions so familiar and rote that his mind is elsewhere. His son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) seemingly miles away in space down the other end of this same hallway bathed in shadow, timidly alerts his father that dinner is ready only to scurry back downstairs just as soon as he can get the words out of his mouth.

Road to Perdition isn’t a subtle film.

Sam Mendes’ follow-up to American Beauty, the Zanuck Dynasty-produced and Spielberg-blessed adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ 1998 graphic novel, was selected by Mendes who specifically wanted a script with minimal dialogue in favor of thematic and evocative imagery.

And find it he did. This light-on-chatting, heavy-on-tableau meditation on father and son relationships is not coy with its intentions. Hanks and Hoechlin remain separated in frames as they are separated in life, each awkwardly maneuvering their own interpretation of the minefield of this relationship, not even sharing the front seat of a car until their bond matures.

Road to Perdition isn’t a subtle film.

Michael Jr. places his father on a pedestal built of admiration, confusion, and fear – knowing the work Sullivan does for local mob man John Roony (Paul Newman) is spectacular and dangerous in the way of the Lone Ranger pulp stories Michael Jr. reads by flashlight every night, but not at all understanding what the work is or how it might inform the character of the man who quietly simmers at the dining room table each morning at breakfast.

Stowing away on a job one evening, Michael Jr. witnesses his father and Roony’s spoiled and impulsive son Connor (Daniel Craig) gun down a warehouse full of men, setting off a chain of events that put Michael and Michael Jr. on the run from the mob. Connor’s actions post-warehouse massacre tear Newman’s allegiances between his true and surrogate sons, for as Newman stoically proclaims, “Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.”

Road to Perdition isn’t a subtle film.

This light-on-chatting, heavy-on-tableau meditation on father and son relationships is not coy with its intentions.

Casting Hanks as a heavy is no mistake here, and though the gamble is not entirely successful it’s a fine experiment. The Nice Guy Baggage Hanks carries with him does, at times, muddle the redemption arc of Michael Sullivan, yet brilliantly encapsulates an adolescent wrestling with the idolized concept of A Parent and the reality of who that parent is; a person with strengths and flaws and everything that makes humans so messy, complicated, and uniquely relatable. We see, with the aid of this baggage, Hanks’ Sullivan as Michael Jr. sees his father. 

To put it another way: You can’t help but love Tom Hanks, even after you’ve seen him murder a man in cold blood. His performance is at its most watchable when he’s teaching Michael Jr. to drive, or gently joking with Michael Jr. about the amount of money acquired during their cross-country bank-robbing spree over a slice of pie at a diner. These scenes each eliciting glimpses of the sly charm that made Hanks a household name. 

In moments of true violence, where we should get a full view of the bad man we are told Sullivan is, has always been, the struggle comes across more as Hanks the actor fighting against his good guy Hollywood image rather than Michael Sullivan, journeyman murderer, attempting to be a father. This layer of necessary darkness is never truly realized, and no amount of tight close-ups on Hanks executing his foes is able to cut through a mental image of the same man dancing on a giant keyboard in FAO Schwartz.

As the name would imply this film is about the journey, not the destination. Leaning on the moody, evocative nature of the panels of the graphic novel, Conrad L. Hall’s posthumous Academy Award for Cinematography is well-earned, bathing every frame in dramatic shadows and stunning silent tension. With just six lines of dialogue in the last 20 minutes of the film, Mendes and Hall orchestrate a sensational, cathartic mood ballet before allowing themselves to indulge in a somewhat heavy-handed conclusion. 

Road to Perdition is not a subtle film. It doesn’t pretend to be, doesn’t want to be. Mendes seems torn between replicating the success of American Beauty while striving to create its polar opposite. And in this struggle, Mendes falls back into familiar and comfortable territory with a keen visual edge where people struggle with the actions they take versus who they are supposed to be; where a conversation at the dining room table is just as loaded as the gun on Michael Sullivan’s bed.

Road to Perdition Trailer: