July 27, 2002
The Road To Perdition–Every Father Is A Hero To His Son
Tom Hanks. Paul Newman. Jude Law. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Stanley Tucci. Dylan Baker. Shot by Connie Hall. Directed by Sam Mendes.
12-year-old son discovers that his father is a hitman.
The cast and crew is among the most decorated in film history. It would probably be harder for this film to turn out poorly, than to turn out fabulous. The pacing is slow, the mood dreary and cold. It was filmed in small towns around Lake Michigan, where I spent much of my formative years. The photography is perfect. Every craftsperson is at the top of their game, except the music, which I swear was note-for-note the same score as SIX FEET UNDER. This actually took me out of the film from time to time. However, with the exception of the music, this was the result of brilliant filmmakers put together in the service of a pretty good story.
While I was sitting in the theater, I was mesmerized. The performances were fantastic. Tom Hanks should be the most hated man in Hollywood. He makes everything seem so effortless. But I am more convinced than ever that he deserves every accolade, every penny, and every drop of power that he now enjoys in Hollywood. He is an actual actor. He isn’t a movie star. His face shows us what’s going on inside him, even though his role here is quieter than usual. Paul Newman brings the sheer force of his Hollywood history to his role. He is full of integrity because we ‘know’ him through his countless other roles. In this role he has some unearned integrity that oozes from him, even though his profession is not one we should aspire to. Jude Law plays another hitman, who, by enjoying his profession gleefully, is more of a monster than Hanks, even though they basically do the exact same thing. So while I sat there watching, I was happy as can be.
I’ve had four days to think about this film. And the more I think, the less I like it. It’s not with the acting or the direction and it sure as hell isn’t the way it was shot. It’s the story and the lack of character development. This is one film where the negative comments you read from people seem to have much more truth behind them than the positive one you felt while watching. I feel sort of betrayed.
There is Catholic imagery that only shows up to prove that Hanks’ character is good. Leigh is among our greatest actresses but she has such little character development as to be a ghost. We should welcome her because when she isn’t onscreen, there are no females to take her place. This movie was shot in that one rare area of the Midwest where women don’t exist, I suppose. The character that Law plays only magnifies the problem with the central part of the film. That Hanks is loyal and doing his job because Newman helped him when he was younger. Hanks is a family man who prays and keeps his business separate from his home life. He doesn’t relish the violence he has to inflict in the name of Newman. Law, on the other hand, is happy, joyful; he poses his victims for photographs. He has no family and we don’t see him in church, therefore he is somehow a worse hitman. Both Law and Hanks work for the same man. They both kill people for a living. Law is creepy and has bad teeth and lives alone. Hanks dresses like a businessman, is well groomed and loves his family. This alone somehow makes Hanks a better man. The victims of Hanks are unknown to us, while the victims of Law are beloved by us.
My basic problem is that Hanks does not earn the love that we as the audience give him. It doesn’t matter that he had a bad childhood, he is a killer, but we think he’s cool. When Law kills someone, we see blood and hear screams. When Hanks does, it’s clean, often off-camera, and the music takes over.
This film isn’t without its charms. A scene where Newman and Hanks talk about the son’s discovery is quiet and says more without dialogue than more typically wordy films would. “He saw everything,” says Hanks. Newman answers, “It’s tough to see that for the first time, but then you turned out.” Is Hanks pissed that Newman forced him into the family business? Does Hanks think he’s messed up and didn’t ‘turn out’? Was Newman apologizing for Hanks having seen the same thing his son did all those years ago? We are forced to make up our own conclusions, which makes the film good. There is a shot outside in the rain in Chicago when Newman is surrounded by his men and Hanks is in the shadows that I may never forget. The time period is faithfully rendered, with the exception of choppy CGI work when we see old-town Chicago.
A better story having characters who don’t appear to have a checklist of character traits, but simply are characters would have made the film less obvious and more thought provoking. We are told what to think by scenes in a family’s kitchen and at church. Bad guys smoke and aren’t attractive. Good guys are quiet and have families.
The praise for this film is way overboard. It will surely be nominated for multiple Oscars. I’d give a nomination to Conrad Hall for the photography and Hanks for inhabiting his role.
7.8 Critical Consensus
, Jennifer Jason Leigh
, Jude Law
, Paul Newman
, Sam Mendes
, Tom Hanks