Not many filmmakers hit a home run like Sam Mendes did with his debut film, 1999's Oscar winner for best picture "American Beauty." Now the curse of Hollywood might've had him making that same film over and over again for years, but Mendes tries something new for his follow-up: a period gangster picture. And it's based on a comic book, no less. Mendes' "Road To Perdition" (IMDb listing) is about as far as you can get from Lester Burnham and his suburban woes, but the way Mendes directs, it feels like "American Beauty" all over again.
The year is 1931 and Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hit man working for local crime lord John Rooney (Paul Newman), who also happens to be his surrogate father. Living in the quiet suburbs with his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two sons Peter (Liam Aiken, "Stepmom") and Michael Jr., Michael lives a somber, if relatively peaceful life. When a hit made with Rooney's son goes wrong, Michael learns that he's been set up, and takes off with Michael Jr. Soon enough, the Rooney family hires a hit man (Jude Law) to take Michael down, and as the father and son head to the town of Perdition for safety, danger lurks everywhere for the doomed family.
When I say that "Road To Perdition" and "American Beauty" are similar in many ways, it seems odd, but they are. Both are films about how dysfunctional families exist in a world turned upside down. It's just that "Perdition" is under the guise of a gangster picture, complete with tommy guns and pencil moustaches. Mendes also reunites most of his "Beauty" crew for this new journey, with Thomas Newman providing an often dazzling score (though it venture into "Beauty" territory as well), and the master craftsman Conrad Hall returning as cinematographer. And if there's one thing that Mendes excels at, it's photography. He treasures that above all else, even going so far as to sacrifice story elements for an extraordinary shot. Like director M. Night Shyamalan, Mendes' work is minimalist, but each frame holds a power of its own. While I praise any director who doesn't have a finger jammed on the edit button and is willing to let scenes play out naturally, Mendes gets caught up in his own vision, and "Perdition" gets a little show-offy now and again. The sophisticated shots never detract from the overall movie, but the goal of good photography is to get to a point where you don't even notice it. In "Road To Perdition," you're aware of every last shot.
This is something Mendes needs to take control of soon. Because his films are so striking, so carefully made and arranged, there's little-to-no emotional investment made in the heart of the narrative. Mendes can manufacture anything that involves smoke and mirrors, but he never earns the tears that are supposed to fall in "Perdition." An inherently sad story of gloom and destiny, Mendes pulls the heart strings toward the resolution of the picture, but since the mechanics of the film and the mood of the direction are so icy, the story is crippled when it comes to caring about these characters. I felt the same way about "American Beauty," and "Perdition" shows no growth from Mendes in conquering this problem.
Tom Hanks is also pushed to the wayside as Mendes sets up shot after shot. I normally wouldn't expect that Hanks could be buried under any film, but in taking Mendes' hand for the journey, Hanks finds himself not giving a performance so much as trying to keep up with the Mendes visual scheme. Michael Sullivan is a man of few words, and Hanks plays him accordingly. There are specially designed dramatic slots in the film that are meant to show off the depth of the character, but they don't work correctly. Hanks isn't bad in the role, but by keeping him so mechanical, Mendes takes away Hanks' appeal.
The same cannot be said of Paul Newman, if only because he's a legend. In the few scenes that Newman has in "Perdition" there's the old glow of a long time professional. Jude Law, on the other hand, has the most fun as a slightly psycho hit man who likes to take photos of his prey after the kill. Gummed up a bit with rotting teeth and a shaved widow's peak, Law is impressive in his short scenes because he seems to be enjoying himself in the atypically unglamorous role. The cat and mouse scenes between Law and Hanks are the film's highlights, as they allow Mendes and the cast a chance to immerse themselves in the gangster genre that act as book ends for the film. Nothing else in the picture tops it.
Filmfodder Grade: B