(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2002)
Although I couldn’t make the slightest guess about the recipients of next year’s Oscars, I think I already know what the year’s most overrated film will be. Not that everyone’s fallen for Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition. Stephanie Zacharek’s review on Salon.com, for instance, could hardly have been more disinterested (“Over and over again, Mendes confuses gracefulness with tastefulness: He loads up on the latter, not realizing that a great movie is a kind of dance, not a perfectly executed dinner party”). But the consensus is that the film is a major event, a front runner for next year’s awards, an example of Hollywood craftsmanship at its finest.
Oscars beget Oscars
This partly tells us that Oscars are expected to beget Oscars – Mendes won for his debut film American Beauty, and Perdition has two former Best Actors – Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. I dealt with American Beauty in this space at the time of the 1999 film festival, where it won the people’s choice award. I wrote a complimentary review of it, which with hindsight was a bit of an autopilot job – the pace of the festival gets to you after a while. But I didn’t list it among my favourite films of the festival, and I was never sure I really understood what was so hot about it. I meant to go back a second time and reconsider, but it’s never seemed like a good enough use of two hours. Since then, the film’s dwindled in my memory.
I’m sure about Road to Perdition though – sure that it’s a good looking package with nothing inside. For sure, it’s “well made” in the way we understand that term: you feel that everyone involved went about their business as though repainting the Sistine Chapel. The problem is in the inherent quality of the material. Road to Perdition is thin, trashy stuff, but belaboring under the notion that it’s floating free of the pulp in which it was born, that artistry and sensitivity have provided it a cushion of air.
Hanks (who’s duller here than he’s ever been) plays a hired gun for crime boss Newman (effortlessly charismatic, just as I’m sure he is when fast asleep). Hanks hides his occupation beneath a respectable wife-and-two-children veneer (Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the wife, wasted in a bizarrely blank role, although her casting suggests a personal history wilder than anything the movie wants to explore). Curious about his father’s occupation, the oldest kid hides in the back of the car one night and witnesses a hit. Hanks assures Newman there’s nothing to fear, but Newman’s son doesn’t trust him, and shoots dead Leigh and the youngest boy. Hanks and the surviving kid take off, pursued by the mob.
From then on it’s an odyssey of narrow escapes, double-crosses and showdowns. The film’s claim to significance lies in two intertwined strands. First, this supposedly isn’t a film that glorifies violence or uses it unthinkingly – rather, it’s a film that understands violence and its effect on those that commit it. A recent dubiously kiss-ass New York Times profile of Mendes summed this up as such: “Mendes cast Tom Hanks against type as a gangster, but he is a bad guy on a heroic mission to avenge his wife and child’s murder, and his acts of violence are understandable. He is a religious man, and his acts of killing carry the weight of sin. This makes him sympathetic and allows Mendes to approach the theme of violence with integrity.”
Ah, integrity. I read that sentence several times, wondering what it means, before concluding it means next to nothing. David Edelstein in Slate dismissed the film, evoking Charles Bronson and calling it “a by-the-numbers vigilante flick that comes with a handy anti-violence message – delivered with perfect timing, after the bad guys have been blown away.” That seems right to me.
But the movie is unusually restrained about rubbing our noses in gore – the killings mostly happen off-screen. In the closing stretch, the voice-over tells us that Hanks’ driving ambition has been to save his son from such an intimate relationship with death. The staging of the final scenes is deliberately otherworldly, as though the characters had slipped to an anteroom of the next life to await Judgment. But gimme a break. We’ve already had a vastly disproportionate number of would-be serious movies about hit men, each of which comes packaged with some dutiful soundbites from its director about how (unlike all those other hit men movies) it digs deeper, revealing a chiller truth that evaded us among the gleeful massacres of its predecessors.
Mendes may deserve some meagre credit for avoiding bloodshed, but it only makes his movie look like something that’s been pre-edited for airline viewing. At the end of the day, this is the same old crap that Hollywood’s been peddling for seventy years, and it would have taken more than an unusually tasteful lighting design to hide that.
The film’s second claim to significance lies in its musings on fatherhood. Here’s The New York Times again: “Though death pervades Perdition, the mounting tragedies have an oddly salutary effect; aligned against common enemies, Hanks and his son are drawn closer together. It’s a brilliant stroke of audience manipulation. ‘This is a very forgiving movie toward fathers,” Mendes admits. ‘As a child, I never really felt I knew my father. His life was a secret to me. It’s no coincidence that Road to Perdition is about a son who’s brought close to his father when he finds out the secret about him.’”
And Hanks is Newman’s symbolic son, and must build a relationship with his own son, who in terms of emotional intelligence may be the real father, and you can stir in more of the same. But this is all even more trivial than the film’s commentary on violence. The movie sets out the theme (for example, in a scene of Hanks and Newman wordlessly playing a piano duet together) but can’t make us feel it. Its stately rhythm denies human truth at every turn. There’s no time to feel the grief at the death of the wife and younger brother, no time to explore the depth of the boy’s guilt. Even the supposed key element – the growing relationship between Hanks and the kid – remains opaque.
I’ve been quoting here from the negative reviews, but there are plenty of positive ones to offset them. As I say, Road to Perdition has a handsome surface. But to quote the tagline from American Beauty: Look closer.