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Road to Perdition (2002)

by on 2012/04/28


“Could I have had more?”

“You’ll never know.”

* * * *

I’ve been pushing off Road to Perdition, over and over, throughout this month. As we focus on comic-based adaptations, this video was an obvious choice, except I’d seen it once before and was sorely underwhelmed. Disappointed, in fact, because I thought it could have been perfect.

Now that I’ve seen it again, I’ll admit I was slightly off. It couldn’t really have been perfect, for one, but it is better than I remember. I see now why it didn’t win me over despite — or because of — its high-functioning craft.

The narrative covers six weeks in 1931, when a father and son flee the mob. Enforcer Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks of Saving Private Ryan) goes on the lam with his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin), who witnessed a family killing. Together, they embark on a crime spree to survive, while avoiding the pursuit of their foes: former boss John Rooney (The Hudsucker Proxy’s Paul Newman in his final live action role), his unstable son Connor (Tintin’s Daniel Craig), and psychotic photographer Harlen Maguire (Gattaca’s Jude Law).

I’ll get the traditional comparisons out the way now. It struck me quite a bit like Miller’s Crossing. With its air of quaint retrospection, however, and its protagonist’s kid’s-eye-view, I had flashbacks to A Christmas Story, which also dealt with father and son relationships.

Moreover, they shared a similar mutedness, a pervasive drabness. Their environments are mostly darkened in some way or another: shadowed, smoky, overcast, foggy, raining, muddy, or simply outdoors overnight. Often people are shown as silhouettes wrapped in atmospheric gloom.

That all being said, the cinematography is clearly well-composed, with a painterly quality in the angles and framing, very balanced to the eye. Almost to the point of distraction I kept noting how shots moved from, through, or settled into picture-postcard framings, adding to the vintage Americana.

But then that’s part of my issue, it was a little too effective. As much the composition was appropriate to the time, to the character of a photographer, and to my symmetry-seeking mind, it was nonetheless a successful communication of unrelenting oppression. The dreariness was nearly overwhelming, convincingly unpleasant.

Which brings me at last to star Tom Hanks, cast here against his “vaguely Jimmy Stewart” type as a dour, weary assassin. Though groomed like a Dick Tracy villain — glinting tiny eyes, greasy thin mustache, and a brush-cut-topped triangular face — he doesn’t bring a lot of angst to the elder Sullivan. He’s capable of appearing lost or anxious, but rarely anything more. On the plus side (for me), the sense of moderation meant I was less concerned for their safety.

In short, I should love this movie more than I do. It’s a stylish relentless downer, reminiscent of many noirs and Warner gangster films. It’s a sort of missing link between the two, its colours so subdued as to be practically rendered in grayscale. In all I respect Road to Perdition, this second time more so than the first, only I can’t say I especially enjoyed it.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

117 minutes

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