It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Road to Perdition" is like a Greek tragedy, dealing out remorseless fates for all the characters. Some tragedies, like "Hamlet," are exhilarating, because we have little idea how quirks of character will bring about the final doom. But the impact of Greek tragedy seems muted to me, because it's preordained. Since "Road to Perdition" is in that tradition, it loses something. It has been compared to "The Godfather," but "The Godfather" was about characters with free will, and here the characters seem to be performing actions already long since inscribed in the books of their lives.
Yet the movie has other strengths to compensate for the implacable progress of its plot. It is wonderfully acted. And no movie this year will be more praised for its cinematography; Conrad L. Hall's work seems certain to win the Academy Award. He creates a limbo of darkness, shadow, night, fearful faces half-seen, cold and snow. His characters stand in downpours, the rain running off the brims of their fedoras and soaking the shoulders of their thick wool overcoats. Their feet must always be cold. The photography creates a visceral chill.
The story involves three sets of fathers and sons--two biological, the third emotional--and shows how the lives they lead make ordinary love between them impossible. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, an enforcer for the Rock Island branch of the Chicago mob, circa 1931. Tyler Hoechlin plays his son Michael Jr., a solemn-eyed 12-year-old. After his brother Peter asks "What does dad do for a job?" Michael Jr. decides to find out for himself. One night he hides in a car, goes along for the ride, and sees a man killed. Not by his father, but what difference does it make? Sullivan works for John Rooney (Paul Newman), the mob boss, who is trim and focused and uses few words. John's son Connor (Daniel Craig) is a member of the mob. Sullivan finds out that Connor has been stealing from his father, and that sets up the movie's emotional showdown, because Sullivan thinks of John like his own father, and John speaks of Sullivan as a son. "Your mother knows I love Mr. Rooney," Michael Sr. tells his son. "When we had nothing, he gave us a home." Men who name their sons after themselves presumably hope the child will turn out a little like them. This is not the case with Michael Sr., who has made a pact with evil in order to support his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two boys in comfort.
Unlike Rooney, he doesn't want his son in the business. The movie's plot asks whether it is possible for fathers to spare their sons from the costs of their sins. It also involves sons who feel they are not the favorite. "Did you like Peter better than me?" Michael Jr. asks his father, after his little brother has been killed. And later Sullivan goes to see Mr. Rooney, and cannot understand why Rooney would protect his son Connor, who betrayed and stole from him, to his loyal employee who is "like a son." The movie is directed by Sam Mendes, from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, much revised by screenwriter David Self. This is only Mendes' second film, but recall that his first, "American Beauty," won Oscars in 1999 for best picture, director, actor, screenplay--and cinematography, by Conrad Hall. Both films involve men in family situations of unbearable pain, although the first is a comedy (of sorts) and this one certainly is not. Both involve a father who, by leading the life he chooses, betrays his family and even endangers them. Both involve men who hate their work.