Sam Mendes’ “Road To Perdition” (2002)

Notable Festivals: Venice (In Competition)

Academy Award Wins: Best Cinematography

2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION was the first film by Sam Mendes that I ever saw.  As I wrote previously, I remembered being captivated by the imagery on display during the theatrical trailer, and sought it out on DVD once it was available.  Having seen it on small screens at a standard resolution for many years, watching it again recently in high definition was like experiencing it for the first time.  Ten years after its release, ROAD TO PERDITION stands the test of time as a cinematic masterpiece that is (so far) the crown jewel of Mendes’ filmography and deserves a spot on the list of the greatest films of all time.

After achieving the highest industry honors for his debut film (1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY), Mendes faced the enviable dilemma of what to tackle as a follow-up.  He had his pick of any film in development, but he went with an adaptation of a little-known graphic novel about small-time crime bosses during the Great Depression.  Coming off the dialogue-heavy chamber drama of AMERICAN BEAUTY, Mendes sought to harness the visual power of film to tell his story, both as a means of advancing the plot and of communicating subtext and central themes.  What results is a subtle, deeply affective visual experience worthy of the ages.

Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a mob enforcer to crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), carrying out the Rooney family’s dirty work.  However, when his son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) becomes curious about what his father does for a living and stows away in his father’s car, he witnesses the true, murderous nature of his father’s work.  Acting brashly, John’s grown son Connor (Daniel Craig) murders Sullivan’s wife and youngest boy in cold blood.  Sullivan and Michael Jr. must leave everything behind in the middle of the night and make their way to refuge in the town of Perdition, while Sullivan schemes up a way to avenge his family’s deaths.

While the storyline is admittedly pulpy gangster fare, the performances are of a first-rate, Oscar-worthy quality.  As the morally ambiguous Michael Sullivan, Tom Hanks (and his mustache) injects a compelling pathos into his portrayal as a troubled gangster.  Hanks’ Sullivan, while a murderer, is a family man and a man of honor, but he holds them at arm’s length– as if his actions made him unworthy of their love.  Hanks is quiet, letting his piercing eyes do the bulk of the emoting.  In eschewing his traditional good-guy image, Hanks is compelling and unpredictable.  It’s truly one of his finest hours as a performer.  Tyler Hoechlin is similarly effective as Sullivan’s son, Michael Jr.  He’s wide-eyed and innocent, but he takes after his father, possessing the same darkness deep within.  He’s the emotional center of the father/son redemption arc, and if his performance was off by any one note, the whole thing could have collapsed.  Thankfully, Hoechlin delivers an understated depiction of a curious boy forced to grow up quickly in a harsh world.

The supporting cast is phenomenal, filled with some truly great actors.  Paul Newman, in one of his last film appearances, plays crime boss John Rooney with a grandfatherly charm and a bittersweet twinkle in his eye.  His Rooney is a man of great compassion and dignity, and commands a strong following within his community.  Indeed, if his business dealings weren’t illegal in nature, he might be a great statesman or even a president.  Reflecting the father/son arc, Newman is a father figure to Sullivan, who mourns the unravelling of their relationship while steadfastly doing what he has to in order to keep his business thriving.  This relationship reaches its beautiful denouement when, shortly before Sullivan guns Newman down in the street, Newman looks at him with those big, soulful blue eyes and whispers: “I’m glad it’s you”.

Daniel Craig, largely unknown to audiences in 2002, makes his first appearance in a Mendes film as Rooney’s son, Conor.  Even this early in his career, Craig possesses an icy charisma that’s captivating and mysterious.  In the wake of his recent success as James Bond, it’s very strange to hear Craig speak in a flawless American accent.  It’s a little distracting, more so now than it was then, but it helps put distance between Bond and his performance here.  As the film’s primary antagonist, Craig is dark and brooding, oozing envy at his father’s preference for Sullivan over him.  It’s a slimy role that Craig pulls off effortlessly.

But, perhaps the more cinematically captivating antagonist is Jude Law’s Maguire– a crime scene photographer that also does a little bit of killing on the side.  Law eschews his handsome, leading-man image entirely by adopting a gaunt, pale, and balding look.  His icy, calculating stare belies the churning machinery in his head.  Maguire is an incredibly intelligent man, and is able to stay right on the heels of Sullivan and son as they make their way to Perdition.  It’s clear that Law revels in the chance to play someone so off-putting, and the result is one of the  more compelling screen villains in recent history.  He’s a chameleon that blends into the shadows, and shows up where you least expect (a fact that proves to be all too relevant in the film’s final moments).

Filling out the cast is a slew of character actors making brief appearances.  Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up as Sullivan’s doomed wife, largely blending into the scenery and being indistinctive.  Stanley Tucci plays Frank Nitti, a bookie/underboss for Al Capone and a personal friend of the Rooney family.  His character is buttoned-up, sensible, and pragmatic, and also gets a chance to showcase a tender, caring side when Sullivan comes to him for help.  Ciaran Hinds has a small, but pivotal role in Finn McGovern, a drunkard with an axe to grind towards Rooney, and whose murder kickstarts the entire plot.  Dylan Baker appears as Rooney’s accountant, adopting an effete, fey manner that tricks his ego into thinking he’s a more important man than he really is.   In ROAD TO PERDITION, Mendes has assembled an eclectic, highly respectable cast that commands your attention and your admiration.

Simply put, the film is one of the most gorgeous-looking works in recent history.  Mendes collaborated with Director of Photography Conrad Hall twice during his career, and both efforts (ROAD TO PERDITION and AMERICAN BEAUTY) resulted in an Oscar win for Hall.  Personally, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  The sensibilities of the two men gel together in a compelling and beautiful way, and there’s no telling what visual beauty might have transpired in further collaborations.  Unfortunately, their partnership ended when Hall passed away shortly after winning the Oscar, but thankfully, Hall’s last effort is easily his best work.  A masterful capstone to a legendary career.

Shot on Anamorphic Super 35mm film, Mendes and Hall imbue the image with a high contrast, letting large swaths of the frame fall into darkness.  Very rarely is darkness and the absence of light used to such dramatic effect than in ROAD TO PERDITION.  Colors are desaturated, favoring a black, white, and brown color palette.  It’s said that Hall wanted to shoot and light the film as if it were a black-and-white piece, which results in a very distinct, stark look.  The image is gritty and appropriately grainy, adding a real substance and weight to the image.  Indeed, this is how Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009) should have looked– if anyone ever needs a quick reference on the differences between film and digital formats, they only need to look at both of these films side by side.

Mendes frames the story with striking compositions complemented by deliberate dolly movements.  Each shot, each camera move is designed to tell the story with maximum effect.  Despite its ugly subject matter, ROAD TO PERDITION is one of the most elegantly-shot films I’ve ever seen.  Truly a masterwork on a technical level.

The film already has a lot of visual distinction going for it, what with the striking, Depression-period accurate detail and wintery Northeast setting.  A lot of the film paints a portrait of the seedy world of adulthood as observed from the perspective of a wide-eyed child– most notably the murder scene that serves as the film’s inciting event.  Every boy is curious about what his father does for a living, and ROAD TO PERDITION not only uses it as inspiration on how the story unfolds, but also as a poignant theme.  The bonding of father and son on the road makes for many of the film’s most effective moments and makes the climax much more devastating.  Sullivan knows he is beyond saving, but over the course of the film, he realizes that he can save his son from a similar fate, and in the process experiences a redemption all his own.

The film’s story provides ample inspiration for Mendes to inject his signature, understated directorial flair.  Ciaran Hind’s murder is depicted in a surreal slow-motion moment, amplified by loud, percussive gunfire (not unlike the sound design for Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995)).  A Sullivan family dinner sequence is composed in a dioramic wide-shot, like the Burnham dinner sequences of AMERICAN BEAUTY.  A cat-and-mouse dialogue sequence set in a roadside diner between Sullivan and Maguire generates a slow-burn tension and illustrates that Maguire is not a threat to be taken lightly.  And most importantly, Mendes crafts a reference-quality scene in regards to direction, cinematography and sound design when Sullivan finally confronts Rooney in the rain on a dark city street.  When I was tasked with showing a film scene to analyze during a high school playwriting class, I brought in ROAD TO PERDITION and showed that scene.  Even then I knew it was one of the most pure moments of cinema that had ever been crafted.  My words can’t do it justice, so I’ll just embed it here.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

You might have noticed that haunting music, which is the product of Mendes’ second collaboration with composer Thomas Newman.  Continuing on his minimalist streak, Newman crafts a highly memorable score comprised of soaring strings, delicate piano chords, and even brassy bagpipes.  The music complements Mendes’ intentions of crafting a near-silent film, and allows for every subtle moment to resonate deeply.  Newman’s score, like Mendes’ film, will stick with you long after the lights come up.

In summary, ROAD TO PERDITION is a severely underrated modern classic whose stature has only grown over time.  Mendes’ career would take a stylistic turn after this film, (mainly due to the change in cinematographers following Hall’s death) becoming notably less formal and constructionist.  Despite its modest box office success, ROAD TO PERDITIONproved that Mendes wasn’t a flash in the pan, but a serious, highly observant drama director working at the top of his game.

ROAD TO PERDITION is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.