After a successful career in stage direction, Sam Mendes made his way into film with 1999’s American Beauty, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Director. Needless to say, it was an impressive feat for someone new to filmmaking, but was hardly a shock considering the extraordinary vision displayed on screen. For his second feature film, 2002’s Road to Perdition, Mendes sought to scale back dialogue and instead use landscapes and stark imagery to convey emotion. Set in Depression-era Illinois, this somber and elegiac period piece’s tragic narrative is framed around father and son relationships.
The source material for the film comes from the graphic novel of the same name written by Max Allan Collins, with art by Richard Piers Raynor. The original story itself was inspired by the Japanese manga series Lone Wolf and Cub. The basis for much of the material in both the graphic novel and the film is the State of Illinois’ history of organized crime, including mob boss Al Capone and his lieutenant Frank Nitti, who are represented in the film as fictionalized versions of themselves. Irish American crime boss John Looney and his son Connor are re-written as Rooney in the screenplay, which was adapted faithfully by David Self.
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a mob enforcer working for Irish American crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Rooney raised the orphaned Sullivan as his own, much to dismay of his jealous son Connor (Daniel Craig), who happens to be the heir to the syndicate. Sullivan’s wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two sons Peter (Liam Aiken) and Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) are unaware of what Sullivan does for Rooney, but live prosperously in their comfortable home. When Rooney sends Sullivan and Connor to non-violently deal with a disgruntled employee named Finn (Ciarán Hinds), Michael Jr. secretly hides in their car in order to find out what his father does for a living.
After being found witness to Connor’s impulsive killing of Finn by Sullivan and Connor, Sullivan swears his son to secrecy. Motivated by his jealousy towards Sullivan, Connor ruthlessly murders Annie and Peter, mistakenly thinking he had murdered the son who had witnessed them earlier. Sullivan and Michael Jr. escape to Chicago where, through various means, they attempt to seek vengeance against the Rooney family, who on their side sends psychopathic assassin Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) to kill Sullivan. As the father and son bond on their road trip to a relative’s home in Perdition, they must avoid crossing paths with the amoral and disturbed Maguire.
Perdition functions as both the fictional town where the Sullivans are headed towards, as well as the road to hell which Michael Sr. must head in order to save Michael Jr. from repeating the same cycle of violence that Rooney passed onto him when he was growing up. A significant difference between the graphic novel and the film is that acts of violence in the film are much more deliberate and visceral, which is rare in most gangster films that typically glorify violence. In Road to Perdition, whether one is honorable or fair, an act of violence draws consequences which can break down families and communities. Interestingly, it is tragedy which brings Sullivan and his son together, though a father’s past sins ultimately cannot be forgotten.
While the film deals with these weighty themes maturely and organically, all too often it distances itself from the viewer by lacking in emotional resonance. Character development is minimal, and the superb aesthetic choices tend to overshadow the plot. Legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, who had previously won an Oscar working on Mendes’ American Beauty, won another posthumously for this film. It’s apparent why practically 20-minutes in, because he is able to capture all the characteristics of 1930s America, from the Edward Hopper influences to the beautiful widescreen landscapes.
Casting for the film is immaculate, with Newman turning out a nuanced performance which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Hanks may not look the part of a mob enforcer, but he humanizes Sullivan by playing the likeable father as equally well as the role of cold killer. The character of Michael, Jr. isn’t the most demanding part, but Hoechlin handles the role respectably. It’s unfortunate that Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Daniel Craig are underused by Mendes, because they really shine in their brief screen time. Much of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s scenes were cut due to time constraints, but can be found (albeit in standard definition) as a bonus feature on the disc.
The Blu-ray release of the film includes a good mix of new bonuses and features previously found on DVD releases. The film looks gorgeous in 1080p, and it definitely enhances enjoyment of Conrad Hall’s iconic cinematography. Sam Mendes welcomes the viewer with a brand new introduction where he reiterates the ability of Blu-ray to improve a film experience. Other features include a commentary track by Mendes, an interactive feature where you can explore the world of the film, deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes featurette with several great interviews with the cast and crew. The highlight of the disc is the retrospect on Hall, which explores his art and influence on cinema in HD.