Director sam mendes, in his first film since he won the Academy Award for American Beauty, faces an interesting problem. Road To Perdition stars Tom Hanks, the most likeable star in American movies, in the darkest role of his career, as a 30s mob hit man. So how does the filmmaker keep his star likeable? By never showing him killing anyone.
This might be a studio decision or a choice by Mendes or Hanks. Either way, the star kills people, mostly bad guys somehow connected to the murder of his wife and son, but we never see him in the frame with his targets. We see the victims, hear the shots and know that it's Hanks's character, Mike Sullivan, firing the gun. But we never get a fat close-up of his face while he pulls the trigger.
It's an act of directorial sleight of hand that cheats both audience and star: the former of the chance to decide how far we're willing to go toward identifying with an amoral killer, the latter of the opportunity to play a really dark character. Instead, Hanks plays that familiar figure, the paterfamilias driven to violence by an assault on his family.
It's also, like most American movies these days, over-groomed. There's no diner that isn't lit like a Hopper painting, no room where Conrad L. Hall's camera doesn't pick up the subtleties of polish on a hardwood floor, no shot in the rain where the lighting doesn't create halos.
I'd be tempted to blame Mendes's extensive theatre experience, but this hermetic, boxed-in quality is all over big Hollywood productions these days. Maybe the cold, dead hand of Stanley Kubrick is on everyone's shoulder.
There's no room for accidents, a fact that's worth mentioning because one of the greatest moments in Hall's career as a cinematographer -- the rain on the window casting "tear" shadows on Robert Blake's face in In Cold Blood -- came about by accident. Now directors think an unplanned moment will cause their whole carefully articulated construction to collapse as the audience watches.
That said, Road To Perdition is an eminently watchable and unusually intelligent film. I particularly like the moment when Paul Newman reminds Hanks of the ironic absurdity of his quest: "There's no one but murderers in this room." Hanks, Newman and the rest of the cast do outstanding work, though Hanks could have done more if given the chance. Jude Law, stripped of the need to be the hottie du jour, is a terrific secondary villain.
Don't be put off by the release date. This is a rare instance of an Oscar-bait picture being shifted into the summer schedule for reasons other than its horrific badness.
Originally slated for Christmas, the studio delayed the opening so it could throw its weight behind A Beautiful Mind.