Road to Perdition

DreamWorks, 2002

“Could I have had more?”

“You’ll never know.”

—Tyler Hoechlin to Tom Hanks

It doesn’t bode well when, in the course of adapting a published story to the screen, film makers take it upon themselves to rename the main character. Granted, the shift from “O’Sullivan” to merely “Sullivan” may not seem like a particularly huge leap, but the de-Irish-ing of the name has infinitely deeper significance throughout the course of the new story.

Director Sam Mendes seems to be under the impression that he’s directing The Godfather. Unfortunately, The Godfather was a three hour epic by the Academy Award winning writer of Patton. Road to Perdition clocks in at less than two hours and was adapted by the same hack responsible for Jan De Bont’s celluloid wasting version of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

In an attempt to echo the closeknit sense community and extended family feeling of The Godfather, Road to Perdition begins with an Irish wake for a fallen gang member. Unlike Coppola who used his cultural heritage, family, and upbringing to immerse The Godfather in tradition, custom, and behavior, Mendes displays what may be considered a stereotypically English contempt for, or ignorance of, the Irish-Catholic experience, and of the immigrant experience, as well. Once a character has been seen to carry a rosary, that’s it. As if the icon somehow represents the sum total of their experience or character development.

At principle fault in Road to Perdition are the choices made in the process of adaptation. Based on a graphic novel written by Max Allen Collins (director of The Bad Seed semi-sequel, Mommy) and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner, the story is obviously and openly acknowledged to have been inspired by the manga and subsequent film series, Lone Wolf and Cub. The key here, is “inspired,” since the novel cannot really be seen as an Americanized clone of the samurai epic. By the same token, the film can really only be seen as having been inspired by the novel, since Mendes and writer David Self have taken what is essentially an action story with philosophic overtones, and turned it into an action free, tension-less, pseudo-existential diatribe.

Let’s be clear on something: as a graphic novel, Road to Perdition is not great art. In fact, it is some of the worst art published in recent memory. While Richard Piers Rayner’s style obviously requires an extreme amount of time to render, he’s also very obviously tracing reference photographs – and not particularly well. There is not a shred of continuity or flow from panel to panel, and there is even less consistency to the illustration. The Michael O’Sullivan character manages to look almost unrecognizably different from panel to panel – to the point where it’s almost best to just assume that every “new” character is probably O’Sullivan. (Though he does manage to look very specifically like a number of well known Hollywood performers both past and present.)

Considering that most films ride on the success or failure of the characters and performances, the faults and failings of Perdition become increasingly obvious. It is unfair to say that Tom Hanks is completely miscast is a ruthless killer, because he has repeatedly demonstrated the breadth of his range from Bosom Buddies to Philadelphia, but he has certainly been mis-directed, here. There is a principle of film acting that emphasizes subtlety. Subtle is allowing emotion and reaction to creep around the edges of icy stoicism, but Hanks wears his motivation and regret on the very top level of dermis.

In the book, the Michael O’Sullivan is known by his colleagues as the [Arch-] Angel of Death, and is referred to in such hushed and frightened tones of terrified reverence that he’s practically a figure of mythic proportion. Tom Hanks is anything but mythically proportioned. Rather, he’s the every-hitman, providing little or nothing for the audience to latch onto or care about. As such, there nothing for an astute film maker to deconstruct or de-mythologize. Instead of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, he’s a heavily armed version of John Cusack in Say Anything. By way of example, the opening scene of Lone Wolf and Cub finds Ogami Itto, the shogun’s chief executioner, in a situation where he must dispatch a three year old claimant to the throne. And this he does, without so much as a twinge of remorse. Though he mourns the souls of the dead in his personal shrine, his personal feelings, whatever they may be, do not interfere with the faithful doing of his job.

Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin plays Hanks’ oldest son, an annoyingly anachronistic twelve year old on loan to 1931. Before the “enlightenment” of new age parenting, there existed an era in which children were “seen and not heard” and lived in fear of discipline which bordered on frightening domestic violence. As such, their behavior was prompt, respectful, and unquestioning. And yet, after watching his father mow down a half dozen men with a Tommy gun, Hoechlin’s character is infinitely less than petrified of him, and is in fact, given to petulant sulking and open rebellion. This, of course, leads to a great deal of moralistic nonsense and a whole lot of existential whining – all of which Mendes seems to equate with “dramatic weight.”

Paul Newman delivers a typically solid, though increasingly rare, performance as an increasingly paranoid and tortured mob boss. Scattered throughout the rest of the film, are under-used appearances by Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The one, true standout is Jude Law: a rival enforcer on the trail of lone Hanks and kid, who snaps his victims as a “press photographer,” later selling the pictures to the papers. It’s also interesting to note that this character has been added to the story to provide a direct antagonist, and does not appear in the book.

Whereas the novel functioned at the breakneck pace of a John Woo opus (another of Collins’ acknowledged influences), the film takes a more composed, artistically staid approach, as if slowing things down to a glacial pace will somehow increase its moral and emotional significance. (Obviously, the producers never saw The Killer.) Conrad Hall’s cinematography is absolutely staggering, unfortunately, his director undoes much of the compositional effect by literalizing the imagery at the most inopportune times. The inclusion of a swinging mirror in one of the final scenes takes what was a shot of beautifully cryptic brutality and reduces it to unnecessary gore.

Road to Perdition is full of continuity gaffes and logical errors that do nothing but expose Mendes’ complete and utter ignorance of his subject matter, and wholesale disregard for his audience. This obvious lack of understanding of the minutiae of criminal life, character development, human motivation, and story pacing, reveals just how thematically desolate, pompous, and self-absorbed his work truly is. As a side note, composer Thomas Newman yet again flagrantly rips off the score he originally wrote for Scent of a Woman, which makes you wonder (yet again) if modern film makers ever bother going to other people’s movies.

Despite its many faults, the film is peppered with nice moments that in the hands of a more skilled director could have formed the skeleton of a classic work. When Paul Newman is joined by Hanks for an impromptu piano riff at the beginning of the film, the audience is given to believe that they are in store for greatness. And they are let down at virtually every turn. There is only one moment of dramatic intensity in the whole film. As Hanks and son are fleeing a situation, a stray bullet comes winging through the car, narrowly missing them both. Aside from the fact that the slug magically evaporates between the back window and the windscreen, it’s visceral, unexpected, and completely out of place amongst the relentlessly static imagery.

The title – Road to Perdition – implies that characters will embark on a journey, both literal and metaphoric: a path of maturity, tragedy, and life-changing experience. But this Road goes nowhere. There is no sense of travel, and even less of growth or change. The imagined arc of the story, isn’t. The conclusion, which the film makers saw fit to alter from that of the book, is so predictable that it’s virtually unnecessary, and the changes are such that the characters can do little more than watch their opportunity for a profound experience go down in flames.