Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: David Self based on the graphic novel by Max Allen Collins and Richard Piers Raynor
So, every Oscar season, there's a bunch of people who like to go on some cinematic parlor game and discuss the Worst Best Picture winners of all-time, (BTW, the answer is "Gigi", everyone, "Gigi".) and I'm not particularly interested in that, but one movie that seems to keep coming up more and more in that discussing is Sam Mendes's debut feature, "American Beauty". I strongly, disagree with that; I've written on "American Beauty" before, my Canon of Film post on it is below:
I can see some people watching it and not really understanding the context in which it was made, and especially not realize how the common trope about how the perfect American home ideal being complete and utter bullshit, was basically inspired, if not created than perpetuated by "American Beauty", as well as a serious analytical look at a mid-life crisis, from the perspective of the person having it, is somewhat of a cliché now that, we can basically look to half the drama series on television now and find some variant of that, but, I know, there were other great and creative and important movies that came out in '99 that in many ways have become more relevant, important and influential since, but I still rank "American Beauty" among those films. (And except for unfortunately, the "influential" part, I don't rank "Fight Club" among those films either)
That said though, as much as I hear bad now about "American Beauty", I don't ever hear any criticism of Mendes's second feature "Road to Perdition". Which in some ways is strange, 'cause it wasn't as well-received as "American Beauty" at the time; I've never heard anybody, including myself, rank it as a truly great film, until now, and if "American Beauty" was a modern-look at subverting the present, "Road to Perdition", is distinctly classical in approach and execution. It's technically a mafia movie, but it plays and feels more like a classic western tragedy, the kind that John Ford at his best used to make. "There's a lot of "The Searchers" in this film, especially in low-key comedic points that take place between an older relative and his younger male relative, both of whom are in shock at sudden events that took place, against women they love. Thematically, for instance, the bank robbing montage and the sequence where Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is teaching his son Michael, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) how to drive a car.
The film, based on a graphic novel, is a story of fathers and sons. Michael is a mob hitman who works for Mr. Rooney (Oscar-nominee Paul Newman) the local mob boss. We meet him, and his son, Connor (Daniel Craig) at a wake for a fellow mobster, who was apparently stealing from them. Connor is shortsighted, powerhungry and jealous of how Mr. Rooney treats Michael more like a son than him. (And for that matter, how Michael treats Mr. Rooney more like a father) Michael's son then sneaks along on one of Michael's job trips, which in turn, is when he witnesses Connor murder someone else, and realizes what his father does for a living. Connor, in return, kills Sullivan's wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken). He misses Michael Jr., partly because he was unable to see through the window, because he was staring at his own reflection. There's actually quite a few use of mirrors and windows and the reflections therein. In fact, it's kind of a weird choice that the hitman they hire to get both Michael and his kid, was a photographer, Maguire (Jude Law) who photographs those that he kills. His character is not in the original graphic novel, which itself, is an homage to a famous Japanese Manga series, "Lone Wolf and Cub", but the character being added indicates symbolically I imagine, some parable about filmmaking, but literarily, the character is essentially a deus ex machine, a hand of God coming over the movie. (There is quite a bit of religious symbolism in the film too, although with a title like "Road to Perdition" that's to be expected.)
There's reasons why I'm perplexed that "Road to Perdition" seems to be, if not more beloved, at least more respected, but there is obvious plot problems. There's Spielberg-like scenes in the movie where the kid is trying to protect his father, but he's unable to hear the warning honk, due to a ticker-tape machine, there's the dumb last decision, where the Sullivans, end up somewhere where Michael at least knows for sure, that somebody is there waiting to kill him, and the Daniel Craig character is frankly too dumb for his own good, and his death is by far, the most inevitable of anybody's in this movie, that's filled with death. Paul Newman, gives one of his greatest monologues ever in the movie, "... This is the life we chose, this is the life we lead and there is only one guarantee, that none of us, will see heaven." That line, is so good that I can't believe it doesn't get brought up more often as one of the best in recent film history; Newman basically earned his Oscar nomination from that line in the trailer alone.
I think part of why this movie has continued to stick around at the margins, is, partly how classic the story is. It's inevitableness, it's familiarity to us; while "American Beauty" is introspective on emotions, "Road to Perdition" is just a classic tale of storytelling, but more than that, it's absolutely brilliant expert craftsmanship. The fact that this was Mendes's second feature is pretty amazing when you think about it, even though he had loads of theater directing experience prior; for anybody else, this would've been the film that put them on the map. That said though, the real star of the movie, is the legendary Conrad L. Hall, the film earned him his tenth Oscar nomination, and after "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "American Beauty", earned him his third Oscar, which he won posthumously, passing away suddenly shortly after the film was made, and I'd argue that it's his best work in his career. It's so rare that I ever notice shadows and angles and reflections and camera angles in movies in of themselves; we're mostly amazed now at how beautiful a film looks, or how elaborate the camera setup is for that one long take, and while "Road to Perdition" does look amazing, it's so much more than that. Each shot has an idea and thought behind it, and even though Mendes has used other great cinematographers since in his work, and has continued to make good and sometimes great movies; I don't think I can argue that he's made anything bad, this film is at another level. His son, Conrad W. Hall, who himself is an underrated cinematographer, mostly because he spent most of his career doing second-unit work, accepted the Oscar on his behalf, which is surprisingly fitting, considering this movie is about a father and son with the same name. There's a lot of great filmmakings aspect to this movie, the costumes, the wonderfully haunting yet melodic score by Thomas Newman for instance, but the cinematography is second to none.
"Road to Perdition", is the Sam Mendes movie I come back to and watch and re-watch the most, even with the somewhat peculiar-for-the-time, and even today storytelling choices and flaws. It's not a grand statement, but it feel grandiose and important as a film. It feels like, a movie that was made sixty years before it actually was, and sprawls and crawls poetically to an inevitably sad conclusion. It paces like John Ford, it uses the story motifs of "The Godfather" to tell a story that's classic Greek tragedy; it fits so neatly into so many genres and film expectations as a filmgoer, that it's almost impossible not to get sucked into it, and yet, it stands out and transcends those influences. Part of it because of how well it's made, but also because of how classic it is. The most common technique to use when somebody's taking and borrowing from other genres, especially ones that might be long dead or forgotten is to subvert the genre, sometimes by mixing other influences, sometimes by modernizing and updating it with swearing, violence, sex, other things that might not have played in the Golden Age, but "Road to Perdition" stands out by daring to be as conventional as possible and trusting that a modern audience will watch and care about these characters and their journey.