This second film from American Beauty director Sam Mendes presents a highly stylized and muddied look into the world of the Irish mob. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is at the center of it, as mob boss John Rooney's (Paul Newman) personal "Angel of Death." Raised as Rooney's son, Sullivan and his family have been given an idyllic life, marred only by the secrecy of Sullivan's dastardly work. But when his oldest son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses dad taking care of business, their world is shattered, as mob boss Rooney's overeager son murders Sullivan's wife and youngest child in response. Now, Sullivan must put his loyalty to the test to protect his oldest son Michael and buy a life for them both.
Road to Perdition is not some parody of the Irish or Italian mafia, populated with clichéd characters uttering predictably gangsteresque quips about "the family." Rather, it's a blurring of the lines between right and wrong, a beautiful and layered look into the heart of a man who commits murder yet really does know the difference between good and evil. Hanks' character is no hero, though he could have been played as such, had Mendes allowed it. But we're never permitted to stop and attempt to rationalize his misdeeds with platitudes of necessity. Instead, Perdition keeps reminding us that the man whom we would cast in the role of a saint is cold, ruthless, and without remorse.
It's Hanks that makes it work. His Sullivan is dark, silent, and immovable. Hanks' natural likeability could have made bringing that sensibility to life difficult, but he uses his honest and genuine persona to keep the lines of good and evil blurred throughout the film. He's subtle. Every expression has a meaning, every grimace tells a tale. He's smart, calculating, and cool. Sullivan is cold yet never cruel: Honest, loyal, caring, but willing and ready to kill.
This dark and rainy film wastes nothing on its quest of exploration and redemption. There is no scene, no role without purpose. Even a random hitman (in this case played by Jude Law) though he says little and appears only to bring death, becomes a real living and breathing person complete with motivation, personality, and depth. Law like no other has an uncanny ability to completely inhabit his character, even adopting mannerisms, speech patterns, and movements that might seem inconsequential, but when added together create a flesh-and-blood individual behind the trigger.
Newman too draws all there is to get out of his character, a dismal and evil man who somehow seems dashing and grandfatherly in his veteran acting hands. Winding his way throughout the story much like the film's haunting score, Newman's John Rooney walks a path towards inevitability, unwilling or unable to stop the wheels his devilish son has already set in motion.
Soaked in rain, snow, and beautifully framed shots of an interminably gray world, Road to Perdition avoids the simplistic and easy sidetracks taken by so many other modern films. Mendes stays the course and keeps us questioning the morality of the man. Using sound, light, and shadow, he develops a story layered unlike any other, while bullets rip with alternately shocking explosiveness and utter silence across the screen.
Part coming-of-age story, part tragedy, where Perdition best succeeds is by reaching in and grabbing straight to the heart of Sullivan and his son. Road to Perdition soars above all possible expectations to deliver a weighty, thoughtful, and brazenly creative film anchored by Oscar caliber performances from everyone involved.
The DVD includes a full length commentary track from Mendes along with a wealth of deleted scenes (also with optional commentary) -- though they are almost all really extended versions of scenes in the finished film. A fine digital production for a fine film.
Look both ways before you cross the road to perdition.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th July 2002
Box Office USA: $104.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $181M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: DC Comics, DreamWorks SKG
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 171 Rotten: 39
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: David Self
Starring: Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Annie Sullivan, Liam Aiken as Peter Sullivan, Paul Newman as John Rooney, Daniel Craig as Connor Rooney, Ciarán Hinds as Finn McGovern, David Darlow as Jack Kelly, Kevin Chamberlin as Frank the Bouncer, Doug Spinuzza as Calvino, Jude Law as Harlen Maguire, Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, Kurt Naebig as Tenement Murderer, Duane Sharp as Father Callaway, Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Sullivan, Jr., Nicolas Cade as Boy Michael Fights