In the movies, "the road" has led to Bali and Hong Kong, as well as Glory, Utopia and Wellville. It's also resulted in many road movies where the journey is more important than the destination and often comes off as both literal and figurative.
The latest trip and destination is to Perdition in "Road to Perdition," director Sam Mendes terrific follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut, "American Beauty." Named for a seaside town as well as the synonym for Hell, the film is brilliant across the board and should garner a passel of Oscar nominations and other accolades for those in front of and behind the camera.
Adapted and fleshed out by screenwriter David Self ("Thirteen Days," "The Haunting") from Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner's original graphic novel, the film tells the tale of a Depression era hitman who goes on the run from the mob with his only surviving son after a corrupt mob figure kills the rest of his family. A story of revenge, father/son dynamics and the mob, the film doesn't exactly tread upon any new or novel grounds.
After all, the "Godfather" films and HBO's "The Sopranos" have tackled the mob family life issues before, while the hitman being the target on the run plot isn't exactly new either (Robert Ludlum's 1980 novel "The Bourne Identity" recently hit the big screen with that similar underlying plot).
Yet, the way in which the filmmakers have fashioned and told their story makes it seem fresh and intriguing, while the superb performances and top-notch technical work are what make it truly shine. Despite the retreaded material, one is never quite sure where the story is headed or which last man will be standing.
Like Mendes' freshman effort, the film is completely engaging from start to finish, but rather different in tone. While obviously not for all viewers due to its dark and graphic nature, it is a superb piece of filmmaking that will go down as one of the best mob pictures ever made.
Beyond the standard mafia angle that's always intriguing to viewers, it's the father/son dynamic that gives the film some extra punch and interest. As the story begins, working class father Michael Sullivan, Sr. barely knows his kids who are understandably curious about what he does to make a living.
Of course, the setting is of the era of "don't ask, don't tell" family rules and the father won't discuss the details of his employment. Yet, when work invades and then destroys his family life, he's forced to inform and thus bond with his remaining son. It's a terrific setup as far as story goes and all involved sell it so well that it works near flawlessly.
The only problem I had was with some much needed but not altogether successful light family moments that follow the tragedy. While they work in breaking up the solemn and dark nature of the piece, and help in getting the viewer to like and thus care even more for the characters, the scenes somewhat throw off the pacing and mood of the piece. Even so, that's not long lasting and certainly is only a minor quibble.
In recreating the mob life of 1931, Mendes and his crew have done a wonderful job from a technical standpoint and that only adds to the story's overall aura. From cinematographer Conrad Hall's ("American Beauty" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") brilliant and memorable camerawork to the splendid score by composer Thomas Newman ("American Beauty," "The Shawshank Redemption"), as well as the production design by Dennis Gassner ("The Truman Show," "Bugsy"), editing by Jill Bilcock ("Moulin Rouge!" "The Dish") and costuming from Albert Wolsky ("Bugsy," "All That Jazz"), the film looks fabulous throughout.
The real stars of the piece, however, are the stars themselves, and Mendes has assembled a dream cast any director would wish they could get their hands on. Proving once again that he's probably the best actor working today and certain to earn him his 6th Oscar nomination (and possibly 3rd win), Tom Hanks ("Cast Away," "Forrest Gump") delivers yet another strong and sympathetic performance that both drives and grounds (in a good way) the film.
While playing more of an observer than participant, feature film newcomer Tyler Hoechlin (the independent film "Train Quest") is also quite good playing his son who gets more than an eyeful of his father's lifestyle. Paul Newman ("Nobody's Fool," "The Color of Money") is terrific as the protagonist's pseudo father figure who's torn between him and his bad seed biological son and could earn a supporting nomination for his work.
The likes of Jude Law ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Gattaca"), Stanley Tucci ("Big Trouble," "The Impostors"), Daniel Craig ("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "I Dreamed of Africa") and many others are also terrific in their supporting roles. Meanwhile, the only major female character in the piece - solidly played by Jennifer Jason Leigh ("The Anniversary Party," "Dolores Claiborne") - isn't around long enough to make much of an impression.
Whether it's those terrific performances, the strong writing (with some terrific bits of dialogue), superb technical work or Mendes strong direction that's brilliant in both the big moments and smaller, more refined details, this is an outstanding piece of filmmaking that should be more than well-represented come awards season time. "Road to Perdition" rates as an 8.5 out of 10.