Road To Perdition

A film by Sam Mendes
written by David Self

This new film from Sam Mendes - much lauded director of 2000's American Beauty - combines his considerable talents with those of a number of very fine actors and an accomplished technical crew. What results is a film of exceptional polish, with a number of fine performances and some very well-written scenes that slowly and inexorably becomes painful to watch.

The reason for this, while not immediately evident, is clear in hindsight. The script is a mess. It is an interesting mess, in that some scenes are actually quite well-written and very effective, while others are implausible to the point of downright laughability. This unevenness is part of a sort of schizoid character that infests the whole film, and eventually leaves the viewer feeling manipulated and short-changed.

Writer David Self, whose take on the Cuban Missle crisis, Thirteen Days, managed to make those events seem artificial and tedious, and whose lifeless and lackluster re-write of The Haunting of Hill House as The Haunting, made the flaws of the original film seem almost endearing, shows a marked flair for writing scenes sadly coupled with an inability to construct a coherent narrative flow around consistent, believable characters.

The story revolves around the relationship between Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), and his son, Michael junior (Tyler Hoechlin). It begins with a seaside voiceover, foreshadowing the bonding experience we are about to witness in terms of a sweet, low-keyed nostalgia reminiscent of films like Stardust Memories, Biloxi Blues and The Summer of '42 - which is totally out of keeping with the actual events that unfold.

We then flash back to watch those events. I won't detail the plot - it is probably sufficient to say that what is put before us is a pastiche of styles that doesn't know whether it wants to be a 30s-style gangster film, a noir-ish psychological study, an action/adventure picture, a Speilberigan celebration of family values, a coming-of-age film or a thriller-cum-splatterfest.

So, instead, it's a family values film with a high body count and blood smeared on the walls; a gangster-with-a-heart-of-gold fable with no moral center; a male-bonding, father-son road-trip film with little emotional authenticity, lots of casual bloodshed and no consequences: in short - it's a centerless hodge-podge. The leaden whimsicality of the title ("Perdition" is the name of a town where the film's anti-climax takes place) reflects the overwrought sensibility of the whole misbegotten mess.

There is almost no connection between the characters' actions from scene to scene. What emotional "continuity" the film does try to establish is undermined by the lack of any psychologically believable connection between their words, their circumstances and their reactions.

It is hard to know what went wrong. Presumably when a director reads a script he begins to imagine the movie he will make. It is part of his job to be able to identify what will work and what won't. One of the amazing things about this film is that the things that patently don't work have obviously received as much attention and care as those that do. The question is, why didn't Mendes see that, and make the necessary changes?

In these days of the new media hegemony, the focus on profits and the Big Opening Weekend, "mass appeal" is everything. With enormous amounts of money invested in every major film, as well as the prestige of the director, actors and studio executives riding on it, a mass audience is critical. With this in mind, Hollywood seems increasingly anxious to position its films smack in the middle of the bell-curve of audience acceptance.

So we get films that seem to play to the "average" level of intelligence, the "average" span of attention, the "average" tolerance for gratuitous violence, films in which the "average" sensibility (through focus groups and response cards) dictates what happens and how the story ends. And an obviously intelligent director like Mendes allows himself to be mis-lead into believing that the excellent work that he has accomplished here won't be undermined by the many false notes and that the finished product will somehow cohere, even though individual elements do not.

I've mentioned one of these - the voice over narration, which both at beginning and end seems to be part of a completely different film than the one that got made. But there are many others. The whole McGuire character and the sub-plot he inhabits have only an arbitrary and totally artificial connection to the story (this notwithstanding Jude Law's deliciously creepy and radically ‘against-type” performance with his bad hat and worse teeth).

The couple who own the farm seem to exist in a netherworld with no other purpose than waiting to be called on when necessary to plug a hole in the plot. Poor Jennifer Jason Leigh as Mrs. Michael Sullivan is totally expendable - literally nothing but cannonfodder. The character of Aunt Sarah - the McGuffin from Perdition, as you might say - appears just long enough to give the creaking plot a good stiff shove and then sinks without trace or explanation.

The catalogue of loose ends and absurd film conventions is nearly endless. Where are the police in all of this? A fusillade of automatic and small-arms fire explodes on a city street and continues for more than a minute. The scene continues there is quiet dialogue and then another short burst of gunfire. The whole exchange takes four or five minutes.

We are treated to a beautifully-lighted rotating pan shot of the local residents in semi-silhouette at their various windows - but the cops never show. We don't even hear sirens in the distance. Is this film intended to take place in the real world or in some sort of movie never-never land?

In spite of all this, there are many things worth watching. There are some great scenes, and some terrific performances. Hanks and Paul Newman (who plays Sullivan's surrogate father and crime boss John Rooney) have several powerful scenes together - most notably their piano duet at the wake and their penultimate confrontation in the bowels of a church. Jude Law, as noted, creates a character who is totally creepy and truly frightening. His scenes (except for the last, which is an artificial device into which even he can't breathe life) are among the most electrifying in the film.

Hanks is a strong performer and in well-written scenes he brings a real gravitas to his role. But the writing is so badly uneven and his character is called upon to embody such arbitrarily contradictory values that he can never build anything sustainable. In scenes, he is excellent. In the film as a whole he is set an impossible task, and he predictably fails.

Newman is a consummate professional, as well as being a hell of an actor. I don't know whether he insisted that his part be internally consistent, whether he just got lucky, or whether by sheer force of personality and acting talent, he made it that way. However it happened, his is the one character in the film that strikes a note of bottomless authenticity.

The guilt of his ruthless life, the ultimate disappointment from which he is running and the addiction to power and violence are all clear through his tone of voice, his body language, the opacity of his eyes, the smile that looks like a spasm of pain, long before he admits to them in the church basement. If the whole film had explored the issues Newman's performance makes manifest, it might have been a far more interesting and effective.

Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin is a pleasant surprise. Although he has trouble with some of the rather artificial business he is assigned (showing no emotion at a point of crisis, only to break down a day later while reading a comic book in a waiting room filled with strangers - and then, when we next see him, showing no signs of after effects of his grieving process), his one-on-one scenes with Newman and Hanks are mostly nicely played with delicacy and naturalness.

Stanley Tucci is a slick and unctuous Frank Nitti, who sees himself as a businessman with certain objectives, certain interests to protect, certain rules (however arbitrary and morally skewed) to play within; more like a contemporary lawyer than a thug.

Daniel Craig as Connor Rooney has the thankless task of trying to bring something new a badly written stereotyped version of the spoiled, violent, Oedipal gangster's son that has been done to death. He is certainly nasty and ruthless enough to serve as an anchor for our sympathy to Sullivan's revenge motivation - or would be if only Sullivan weren't such a ruthless killer himself (as Paul Newman's character tellingly points out - too bad screenwriter Self didn't pay attention to his own dialogue!)

Certainly the Production Design is glorious. The look of the film, with its several drenching rain storms that come at just the right moments, its extremely artistic lighting, it's seamless CGI landscapes and cityscapes that make the 1930s come alive, is an element that is so good that it is distracting. The camera work is great - imaginative, creative, evocative. Unfortunately, because of the film's shortcomings, it becomes visible and therefore manipulative and self-defeating.

The look is that of a fairy tale - but for all that Michael jr. may be sentimentalizing, the kind of mayhem that inhabits this film is at odds with its glossy, polished look. And the events - the proximate deaths and Michael's ultimate isolation - are so extreme as to render any suggestion that he might ultimately idealize his experience of them unbelievable.

That kind of romantic vision worked in Bonnie & Clyde. There the self-deluding romanticizing of the characters was essential to who they were and what they did - the look offered an insight into how they saw themselves, how they were seen by their "fans." here there is just the look, without an effective justification.

Road To Perdition is a badly-written, mostly (but not entirely) competently realized project that struggles vainly and unevenly to rise above its script. The muddled result suggests a lack of unity of purpose that seems to occur all too frequently in big-budget films where so much corporate capital and creative credibility is invested in a single project.

It is the director's responsibility to see the film not as a collection of independent scenes (however effective), but as a whole, with a continuous, consistent development from scene to scene - not necessarily in a linear sense, but in some sense that is consistent with the films own internal rationale. As much as Mendes has succeeded to varying degrees in his other responsibilities, in this critical one he has not. The real failure here is a failure of vision.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.