Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:20 pm 
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Somber refinement of the gangster genre robs it of the fun

Director Sam Mendes' second movie is a gangster coming of age tale where the youth doesn't end up a gangster; it's also a romantic idyll of a father and son who for six weeks work together fleeing from Chicago boss Frank Nitti while getting their revenge against him at the same time. It's a story about two adult sons, a real one and an adopted one, both doomed, and one son, a 12-year-old boy, whose opening and closing voiceovers show he survives his criminal childhood to lead a peaceful honest life.

For all its killing, 'The Road to Perdition' has a silent center where we see Paul Newman and Tom Hanks staring at each other - two powerful actors we never quite expected to see in the same frame. This inspired casting is among the chief interests of the movie. They're an odd pair, Newman's face as chiseled and handsome as ever at 77; Hanks' pudgy mug screwed up, twisted and ugly as Yasir Arafat's. There's an excellent supporting cast: Tyler Hoechlin as the boy always expressive with few words, Daniel Craig as Rooney's (Newman's) evil son suitably weak and disgusting, Jennifer Jason Leigh convincing if only seen for moments as Sullivan's wife, Jude Law as the assassin-photographer Harlen Mcguire providing one of his energetic character turns, this one more repugnant than any he's taken on before. Hanks too has hardly ever played a guy as bad as this. Nitti as played by Stanley Tucci is more boring than his accountant, but so it may have been.

This is a stoical, somehow empty, Depression era world. At times it seems the period is evoked almost entirely (aside from the heavy, dark clothes) by the frequent presence of lots of old cars. For someone as outgoingly sweet and soulful as Hanks the projection of non-stop self-control is awesome, and Newman's authoritative speeches are fun to watch. But the fact is things are getting very flat by the time Jude Law finally appears to perk up the action with a bit of menacing oddity and ghoulishness as a professional photographer of dead people who sometimes doubles as their killer, and who now gets hired as a hit man to snuff Sullivan. Law provides colorful moments, but even he is held in check. The violent finale, as well as the road sequence, may awaken memories of 'Bonnie and Clyde,' but 'Road to Perdition' has none of Arthur Penn's rich character development or flashy staging.

The premise is more complicated than just Michael Sullivan Junior witnessing a murder and all hell breaking loose. There's an interesting inherent conflict between the 'good' Sullivans, Michael senior (Hanks), forced to become a hit man because Rooney (Newman) has adopted him and given him a home, and Michael junior, his son, also 'good' (on the one hand), and the knowingly wicked Rooney and his bad seed offspring, Conner (on the other). This makes for a study in contrasts that might have been worked out quite differently, particularly if the road sequence had been omitted and there had been more direct interaction between the men.

Perhaps because the movie focuses on these two sets of fathers and sons and there's little dramatic elaboration of other relationships within the gang - of the heavy ties that bind together a larger criminal 'family' or community - there isn't that pervasive mood of sublime melancholy, the sense that everyone in the whole enterprise is intertwined and doomed, that makes the Godfather trilogy seem an epic and that ennobles smaller efforts like James Gray's 'The Yards.' Instead there's a quality of emotional stinginess, of clean and potent darkness: 'Road to Perdition' has an elegant and somewhat cold look, a feeling of carrying off the feat of doing the gangster movie thing once again and in a new way - but at some cost. 'Road to Perdition' strives for freshness and class and it achieves them. However, it does so by giving up some of the more commonplace pleasures of down and dirty gangster action and emotional warmth.

The minimal dialogue, apart from a few grand speeches, makes us do the work of supplying feelings for these surprisingly repressed Irishmen. Did Thirties people have almost no vocabulary? If so, how did they manage to become so talky in time for 'Forties film noir?

Hanks' performance is a remarkable feat of repression. We see this warm good-natured man holding back all his natural feelings of humanity and goodness to become, or at least seem to be, a trained killer. The effect is very intense. He constantly seems about to implode. Nevertheless this Method acting doesn't really work because Hanks succeeds only in appearing stern, not cruel. There's no killer there, and when he, as Sullivan, mows down old Rooney and his men, it's understandable that it's done in a cool, elegant long shot so we don't see his face.

Certainly 'American Beauty' seemed to touch a nerve at the time; a lot of it may have been that Kevin Spacey, at the center of it, was born to play the role of Lester Burnham. It's clear from this second effort that Sam Mendes can be relied on to put together a finely crafted movie we will want to go out and see, and that cinematographer Conrad Hall is a more than worthy collaborator. At times Conrad Hall almost plays the dominant role here. It's not so clear that Mr. Mendes has a point of view.

July 14, 2002

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