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Road to Perdition

The 2002 crime drama directed by Sam Mendes and starring Tom Hanks.

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Well-made, but vaguely lacking in emotion

  • Oct 11, 2003
For some reason I was really looking forward to "Road to Perdition." Perhaps it was because I liked Sam Mendes' first film, "American Beauty," so much. Or maybe it was the fact that Thomas Newman, one of my new favorite composers, wrote the score for the film. It could have been that Tom Hanks doesn't usually play this sort of role, or that it's a film based on a pretty good graphic novel, a fact which seemed played down in many circles.

One thing I can say is don't go seeing this movie expecting anything like "American Beauty." "Road to Perdition" is a completely different sort of story, and as a smart director Mendes abandons the directorial tricks that made "American Beauty" so unique in favor of telling this story the way it needed to be told.

And it is actually a very good story. In one sense, it's a "mob movie," since it involves American organized crime in the early 20th century. However, it's not a mob film like Coppola's Godfather series or Scorcese's "Goodfellas," which are great in their own right. Where those movies are ensemble films about a whole family, "Road to Perdition" is a much more personal story, about one man who discovers that it is too late for him to be redeemed and live a good life, but it may not be too late for his son. After his younger son and wife are killed, he sets out with his eldest son to find a new life for them both.

Though it was hard to picture him as a gangster when I first heard about this film, Tom Hanks was ideally suited to this role, and I can see why he was cast. I think he's a fine actor in many of his movies, but in "Road to Perdition" he really stretched himself. His character early on seems almost to lead a double life: a relatively normal life with his family, and his business life as an enforcer for his mafia associates. And yet he plays both sides well. At home he is obviously a loving father, though unsure and hesitant about how to reach his older son. He's far from perfect, but he plays a plausible man struggling with the realities of raising children. In his work, he is businesslike and professional. He is not brutal by nature, but he can be when the work calls for it. In the end, he's simply good at what he does. However, when the elder son hides away and witnesses his father at work, that all falls apart. The rest of the film shows Hanks' character trying to reconcile the two halves of his psyche, even as he's trying to find a safe place for his son, and maybe for himself. His struggles are real, and they are palpable. Hanks played it up just right, but not too much. I was impressed and pleased by his performance.

When I mentioned earlier that Sam Mendes abandoned his previous visual tricks for "Road to Perdition," that's not to say that it doesn't have its own visual style. Rather, what he did was to create a new style for this film, one which addresses its own needs more efficiently. Where "American Beauty" was a story told with flourishes and idiosyncrasies, as befit the theme of the film, "Road to Perdition" adopts a much simpler, more straightforward tone. There are moments of beauty and moments of brutality, to be sure, but only as much as fits the events of the story. The scene in which Hanks guns down a number of his old associates is strikingly graceful, handled with a light but serious touch. Without giving the end away, I can say that the final scenes were among the most perfect in the film, and leave the audience thinking about the conclusion long after the credits have rolled.

All this sounds like I really enjoyed the movie, and basically, I guess I did. I certainly don't regret spending time and money to see it, and I definitely enjoyed it while I was there. Technically, it's a strong story, skillfully put together. The acting was good all around. There were no major flaws in it that I noticed.

And yet, emotionally, it left me sort of flat. I think that in the end, it wanted to be a movie that moved the audience in some way, that made them feel. For me, it just didn't. It's funny, because I had the same problem with "American Beauty," and the only difference there is that I don't think "American Beauty" was trying to make you feel - it was trying to make you think. In that sense, it was a success. Which is not to say that "Road to Perdition" is a failure at all. I wouldn't say the movie failed, but I wouldn't say it completely succeeded either. When I think about it now, it just sort of... exists, neither a success nor a failure. I admire many things about it, from a technical perspective and a storytelling perspective. But, if indeed it was trying to make me feel something beyond the surface for the characters, then I can't say it did that for me.

Perhaps Mendes is a director who prefers to leave the audience's feelings to the audience. Rather than manipulating them with music or powerful visuals as other directors tend to do, he leaves the emotional side of the story to what the audience chooses to invest in it. "The audience makes the film," Peter Weir has said in the past, and perhaps this is Sam Mendes' theory as well. Regardless of the theory behind his style, his methods seems sound. "Road to Perdition" is a good film, and worth seeing. Perhaps any other judgments on it are best reserved for the audience to decide for themselves.

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More Road to Perdition (2002 film) reviews
review by . August 20, 2010
Road to Perdition is a movie that brings you in with the strong performances of its acting cast and keeps your interest with cinematography that is some of the finest ever seen in Hollywood. It is a tale of fathers, their sons, and the gangster era of Al Capone. It pits hit man Michael Sulivan (Hanks) against a bounty hunter (Jude Law) who has been hired by his boss, and father figure John Rooney (Paul Newman) as Sulivan attempts to kill Rooney's trigger happy son (Daniel Craig). At the same time …
review by . January 27, 2004
posted in Movie Hype
Before seeing this film for the first time, I already knew that Tom Hanks plays a hit man for the mob. Tom Hanks? As I then viewed the film, I assumed that Hanks accepted the role because he liked the script, respected director Sam Mendes, and wanted to work with Paul Newman. I also guessed (only a guess) that he wanted a role "out of character." That is, he wanted to depart from the Hanks persona so firmly established in earlier films, notably Splash (1984), Big (1988), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), …
review by . April 04, 2003
Whether or not Tom Hanks and Paul Newman fall into the great actors category for their roles in this film seems irrelevant when measuring the film's overall ability to entertain. Sadly, this 30s period piece involving murderous Irish gangsters flops miserably. The plot although reasonable is predictable from the moment the young son appears and begins his monologue against the backdrop of the roiling surf. Actually watching the trailer and drawing your own conclusions sufficiently will convey the …
review by . February 27, 2003
This movie has many, many great things to recommend it. The cinematography and art direction are first rate. The casting is very good, I think. Tom Hanks as an "enforcer" for the mob is not terribly hard to buy. He does his job because its what he owes to his boss, who was like a father to him, and its what keeps his family living a nice life. He works hard to keep his family insulated from what he does for a living, and Hanks is right for the part. We know him as a nice guy. He's trustworthy and …
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Rich Stoehr ()
Ranked #80
I often hide behind a pithy Douglas Adams quote or maybe some song lyrics. I guess it makes sense that much of what I share is reviews of things I like (or don't).      People … more
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InRoad to Perdition, Tom Hanks plays a hit man who finds his heart. Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is the right-hand man of crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), but when Sullivan's son accidentally witnesses one of his hits, he must choose between his crime family and his real one. The movie has a slow pace, largely because director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) seems to be in love with the gorgeous period locations. Hanks gives a deceptively battened-down performance at first, only opening up toward the very end of the film, making his character's personal transformation all the more convincing. Newman turns in a masterful piece of work, revealing Rooney's advancing age but at the same time, his terrifying power. Jude Law is also a standout, playing a hit man-photographer with chilling creepiness. This movie requires a little patience, but the beautiful cinematography and moving ending make it well worth the wait.--Ali Davis
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