Monday, April 12, 2010

Road to Perdition: Absolutely Beautiful

You know those movies that feel like you’re watching a painting come to life? All the elements are so beautifully melded together that it’s breathtaking to behold. That’s the way I feel about “Road to Perdition” (2002). I know…it’s another one of those movies that most people would look at me and say “Really? Didn’t think it was your cup of tea.” But I love this film because it is my favorite type of storytelling – a simple story with complex emotional undertones, all told through strong acting, images and music.

Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, it tells the story of young Michael Sullivan Jr. and his father in 1931. Distant but still loving, Michael’s father is revered by all, as far as young Michael can see. But one day he discovers that his father is a killer for the mob after he witnesses his father murder several men in cold blood. Consequently young Michael’s life is flipped upside down. Fearing he will not keep the family secret, the mob boss’ son kills Michael’s mother and little brother. So, to save his son’s life, his father must take Michael on the run.

Directed by Sam Mendes (of “Revolutionary Road” and soon-to-be-ex-of-Kate-Winslet fame), the film focuses on those underlying themes of father and son, violence and its influence, and the lengths parents will go to for the safety of their children. Yet it does all this with the use of very little dialogue, at least compared to most films. (There are only six lines of dialogue in the last 20 minutes of the movie.) And he managed to put together a powerhouse cast for this inner-turmoil-based script. Tom Hanks plays the hit-man father. Paul Newman is the father-figure gangster boss. Daniel Craig (pre-Bond days) is Newman’s far-from-perfect, jealous son. And Jude Law plays the killer-for-hire chasing down Sullivan and son. A truly amazing cast to watch, especially Hanks and Newman together, two of my favorite actors ever. Absolutely beautiful to watch. (Well, except for Law’s makeup. He’s just plain creepy!)

Mendes was also able to hire the great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall for the film, their second collaboration together. (Their first was Mendes’ Oscar winning “American Beauty.”) It’s interesting how I always felt like “Perdition” was a beautiful painting, because Mendes and Hall actually drew their design inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper. Hopper was a realist painter from the early half of the 20th century. His most famous painting you probably recognize – “Nighthawks.” The lighting and color schemes of the film all came from Hopper’s paintings. Even the weather was kept in the same realistic tones, as the entire film was shot during winter on location in Michigan and Illinois. Another visual theme you might notice throughout the film is the matching of water and death. From the funeral scene at the start of the film, water is present at every death. And Mendes even worked hard to make his death scenes beautiful. To do that though, he took the advice of another great director, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock said he managed to create such memorable images in his films because he would shoot his love scenes like death scenes, and his death scenes like love scenes. You can truly see this in “Perdition.”

Another part of this film that makes it work so well is its music. I love film scores! So much so, that as a kid, my brother used to tease me that I didn’t own any real albums because all the cds and cassettes I owned were soundtracks. And my favorite composer is Thomas Newman, of the Hollywood Newman clan. (His father is the composer Alfred Newman, and cousin is songwriter and composer Randy Newman.) He has worked on many of my all-time favorite films, including “Wall-e” and “Finding Nemo.” Like Hall, he first worked with Mendes on “American Beauty.” And I must say, all three know how to mix their skills together to suck you into an amazing world, the way films were born to do.

13-year-old Tyler Hoechlin won the role of Tom Hanks’ son and main kid Michael Sullivan in a nationwide search that included over 2000 young boys. Only his third film, but his first big budget feature, he managed to hold his own against the heavyweights acting along with him. He also had to learn to drive for the film, for which being a typical boy, he was only too happy to do. Even though he managed the task easily, they still put a stunt driver in the back seat with his own set of steering controls when he drove, just in case.

Sadly this was the final film for cinematographer Hall and the final on-screen feature film for Newman. (Newman’s last film acting of any kind was “Cars” in 2006.) Newman didn’t pass away until 2008, but Hall passed away in January 2003, just a couple of months before he would posthumously win his final Oscar for “Perdition.” I think it’s kind of poetic that the last live-action film these two men worked on was together, because they had worked together three times before on some of the biggest heavy hitters of their careers– “Harper,” “Cool Hand Luke,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

So, when you’re in the mood for watching something beautiful, check out “Road to Perdition.” A film that anyone who loves the art of saying a thousand things without saying a word through acting, images or music should enjoy. Have a great week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit: One of the banks used for a robbery scene was absolutely perfect except it faced the wrong direction. So in true movie magic fashion, the production designer flipped signs, license plates, even steering wheels in cars, so that the scene could be flipped around to the correct direction in post-production.)


  1. If you'd like to see the fantastic novel from which "Road to Perdition" was partially ripped off, check out BUTCHER'S MOON, by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake).

  2. Oooo, I didn't realize that! Yeah, I'll have to check that out. Thanks! You have a copy I could borrow? ;)

  3. Sure! I'll bring one home.