Sam Mendes needs to get his hands on a truly great screenplay. Alan Ball’s “American Beauty” script achieved a kind of greatness, but there’s no doubt that it’s the stunning look Mendes gave the film that made it so memorable. There’s a feeling in “Road to Perdition” that same thing may occur, but the problems of this script are far greater than the occasional sitcomish digressions of Ball’s. David Self has taken the gritty graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and polished into something dull and conventional, the kind of gangster flick that would have someone unthreatening like Tom Hanks starring as its anti-hero.
Waitaminute, this is exactly that movie! Don’t get me wrong, I love Hanks. I loved his 80s comedies, I feel “Forrest Gump” was the best film of the 90s, I enjoyed a lot his chick flicks with Meg Ryan and more recently, I think he should have gotten a third Oscar for his amazing performance in “Cast Away”. But whether he likes it or not, in all of his movies he’s always a decent, earnest man and he’s great at it. What he is not is a bad-ass. Hanks’ a good-ass, and try as he might, I don’t think he can escape that. Those blue eyes, that babyface, that soft voice… Good-ass.
“Road to Perdition” is the utterly unoriginal but potentially affecting tale of a man who seeks revenge for the murder of his wife and son. This was also the plot to one of Dreamworks’ previous Oscar-ready films, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”, down to how the protagonist’s troubles are caused by the jealousy of a young man whose father favours said protagonist more than his own son. Yet where Russell Crowe filled this tired revenge story with rage and fury, we never believe that Hanks is ready to kill countless people to avenge his family. He just looks about to say, “Gee, my wife and kid are dead, what a bummer…”
One thing that’s somehow different about “Perdition” is how Hanks’ character, a hit-man for the Irish Mob in the 30s, has his surviving son (Tyler Hoechlin) tagging along on his violent journey, but that’s not a good thing. The kid is a blank, never allowing us to feel what he’s feeling, and his presence only further takes away whatever edge the movie might have. After an adequately dark first act, the film actually settles into cutesy crap like having Hanks teach his son to drive, and there are actually comic beats on the road to Perdition. I don’t know, but if I was surrounded by death, I don’t think I’d be joking around.
The film does work at times. Notably, all of the shoot-outs are tense and depicted in a way where most of the violence is understated yet you feel every bullet (great sound editing work there) and while Hanks is miscast, some of the other actors make their characters transcend how underwritten they are. Paul Newman conveys much weariness and fatalism as the ageing crime boss employing Hanks, and Jude Law gives the film its only surprising moments as a creepy photograph.
Other than that the film is not much involving and the only emotion one feels is “Ooh, nice shot composition.” Even then, Mendes’ visual prowess is not as awe-inspiring as it was when he made his cinematic debut in 1999, especially since he lifts many motifs from “American Beauty”. Just look at that early dinner scene that seems to be set at the Burnham’s, or at the way he shoots father and son in a car as if we were watching Colonel Fitts driving Ricky to school again. Or how about the nearly co-starring role rain plays once again, soaking the characters before they meet their fate? Even more glaring is Thomas Newman’s score, basically a re-recording of his “Beauty” music with a few different flourishes.
“Road to Perdition” is not a horrible film, it’s too well crafted for that, but it doesn’t achieve anything besides that. It’s not entertaining, it’s doesn’t inspire any feeling, it doesn’t make you think… It’s a gorgeous bore.