DVD - Image A- Sound B Extras B
BD - Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law
screenplay by David Self, based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner
directed by Sam Mendes
by Walter Chaw A shot near the end of Road to Perdition, Sam Mendes's follow-up to his honoured American Beauty, needs to be singled-out. It's of a hotel room divided by a wall: on one end sits a boy in bed, weeping; on the opposite side of the partition enters the boy's father, wet from the rain with blood on his hands. With painterliness, Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall present this moody tableau in what is a continuation of the picture's running homage to the images, themes, even favourite subjects of American painter Edward Hopper, such as an all-night diner in the middle of nowhere, an unevenly lit apartment, and silhouettes imprisoned in blocks of yellow light.
All at once the scene illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of Road to Perdition. The film is overscored by Thomas Newman (with compositions reminding a little too pointedly of Carter Burwell's score for Blood Simple), ravishingly beautiful to look at, and interested in the disappointments and devotions shared between father and son. (Indeed, the only women in Road to Perdition are a wasted Jennifer Jason Leigh and a roomful of whores.) Yet the meticulous detailing of the rites of passage of a child serving as metaphor for a country in its troubled adolescence (the film is set in the winter of 1931--post-Coal Wars, WWI, Black Sox, Fatty Arbuckle; mid-Depression, Prohibition, Jazz Age) is ultimately without any deeper echoes. Despite an extraordinarily strong ensemble and breathtaking cinematography, this adept Coen Brothers riff (Miller's Crossing with whiffs of Blood Simple and Barton Fink) amounts to a self-conscious director's piece.
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is the muscle for Chicago crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). One night, his young boy Mike (Tyler Hoechlin) stows away in the back of his father's car and witnesses his dad and Rooney's son Connor (Daniel Craig) carry off a hit in which three men are killed. The question of whether Mike Jr. can be trusted is raised--Michael answers "he's my son," and that seems to suffice, but then the two go on the run (for "six weeks," a bookend voice-over informs) and another father, Rooney, is asked to betray his own offspring (one adopted) to save his empire. The great Stanley Tucci plays Capone's heavy, Frank Nitti, and Jude Law is magnificent as a rival hitman whose character seems modeled at least in part after the photographer Weegee.
The details are right--the rapturous, elegiac feeling of the film is compelling in that brushed wood-and-cigar smoke kind of way, all acedia and decayed opulence. Every base is covered for a run at import: Opening in the midst of a snowy Chicago winter, Road to Perdition even makes a play for the Oscar caveat of other films set in snowscapes, popular as a shorthand for credibility since the Coens' 1996 Fargo (and appearing since in films running the gamut from Ang Lee's brilliant The Ice Storm and Raimi's A Simple Plan to more uneven fare: Affliction, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Shipping News, and so on)--but shorthand is all it is, really (see also: the requisite shot of crossroads and liminal beaches). It's not long before rain fills in as the meteorological metaphor of choice, drenching its characters in baptismal floods when first Mike Jr. and then Michael confronts the realities of their respective fathers.
No question that there are indelible and staggering images in this film (theatre veteran Mendes has between this picture and American Beauty already established himself as a cannily cinematic visual stylist), but like American Beauty, Road to Perdition ultimately exhibits a narrative lightness stemming, very simply, from the timid parsing of such barnside targets as middle-class values and sons trying to breach gaps in their relationships with their fathers. Road to Perdition also suffers from some editing and directorial sloppiness (poor choices cause Mike Jr. to appear to teleport from outside to inside a car and fail to pay-off a bit of elevator sleight-of-hand) and an allegorical heavy-handedness appealing in the film's initial hour (note a scene where Mike Jr. sees silver dollars on a cadaver's eyes, paid off when Rooney gives a silver dollar to the child for his silence) but increasingly gimmicky as Road to Perdition breaks down into a series of expert but empty action sequences. Once the picture descends to the ham-fisted revelations of Billy Bathgate, only Law's photo-snapping Maguire retains the sense of the delirious that keeps the film's opening half in the dreamlike territory of Shanghai Triad.
It's not that there aren't any more tales to be told about fathers and sons (filial bonds represent the only "true" relationships in Road to Perdition); Road to Perdition is more interested in marrying the claustrophobic visual style of The Godfather with the funereal ecstatic of Badlands, and in that Daedalan ambition, it suffers an Icarean fate. Better to rent Abel Ferrara's criminally underestimated The Funeral for a better treatment of the same themes in the same milieu, but if you do see Road to Perdition--and it's certainly worth watching for its performances and its visuals--see it on the biggest screen you can find.
by Bill Chambers DreamWorks releases Road to Perdition to DVD in distinct fullscreen and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen editions, the latter available on separate platters each containing 5.1 Dolby Digital audio but one dropping an HBO special to accommodate a full-bit DTS mix. We received only the DD-only disc for review, which suits me fine, since Road to Perdition does not have an especially active soundtrack except during peaks of gunfire (chapter 5, the stowaway scene; chapter 18, the run-in with Maguire in the accountant's hotel room). Though the final images produced by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall lose some of their portentousness on the small screen, the velvety video transfer is close to perfect in terms of capturing Hall's sooty yet silky vision of the Prohibition era.
Coming close to dethroning the king of immodesty M. Night Shyamalan, Road to Perdition director Sam Mendes appears in more stills than either Tom Hanks or Paul Newman within the disc's insert booklet of production notes, but at least--unlike Shyamalan--Mendes is not allergic to commentaries. Though his Road to Perdition yakker may be too pretentious for some, I personally enjoyed listening to what is essentially a 117-minute apologia, if left yearning for production details. When he mentions a CGI fix during a shot of Mike and Michael driving to Chicago, you're suddenly reminded that he's discussing a film and not a work of literature.
Mendes also comments (optionally so) over eleven deleted scenes, the first few of which should not have been cut out of respect for an actress of Jennifer Jason Leigh's calibre, who barely registers in the finished product. Anthony LaPaglia bears a striking resemblance to the real deal in his omitted cameo as Al Capone. The HBO featurette, simply titled "The Making of Road to Perdition" (25 mins.), is worth a viewing just for the segment about the late Hall, as it's the most substantial attention he receives on this disc. ("I'm having a good time, but I'm tired," Hall confides in his interview.) Note the presence of a Tickle-Me-Elmo in Mendes's office here, a welcome neutralizer of his haughtiness. A commercial for the soundtrack CD, select cast/filmmaker bios/filmos, production notes, and a photo gallery round out the package. Yes, I wonder where Road to Perdition's trailer is, too. Originally published: February 25, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Director Sam Mendes has recorded a 1-minute, HD video intro exclusive to Paramount's Road to Perdition Blu-ray Disc in which he says that any skepticism he had towards Blu-ray vanished when he saw how well it honoured Conrad Hall's cinematography of the film. No kiddin'. Letterboxed at 2.35:1 in 1080p, this is one gorgeous transfer; I fretted a little at the start because the grain is nothing if not noisy during the blown-out opening shot, but it tightens up and loses that electronic character immediately thereafter. I've seen more immaculate presentations--this week, in fact, with Christopher Nolan's Insomnia surpassing it for sheer perfection (Road to Perdition's source print is very occasionally flecked with white spots, and there is some telltale dirt during the old-school optical transitions)--but I haven't been this engrossed in a HiDef image since Criterion released Days of Heaven on the format. As speculated--albeit self-aggrandizingly--in the supplementals, this, Hall's last film, might be his defining achievement, and I'd compare the experience of watching it on DVD vs. watching it on BD to seeing an Edward Hopper in a book vs. seeing one in a gallery. (NTSC is virtually incapable of producing, for instance, the particularly Hopper-esque gunmetal green that came to define the movie's palette through its use in promotional materials. You see it most blatantly in the bricks of the whorehouse where Sullivan nearly meets his end.) It's amazing what weak tea the standard-def version is in comparison--and the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is a significant step up from the DD 5.1 audio of the 2003 platter as well. Thomas Newman's problematic score sounds richer and more complex, while the rear discretes are newly animate with activity.
The disc recycles all of the DVD's extras and tacks on some fresh material. In addition to the aforementioned Mendes intro, you get the 27-minute HD retrospective "A Cinematic Life: The Art & Influence of Conrad Hall"; an interactive feature called "The Library: A Further Exploration of Road to Perdition"; and the movie's trailer (in HD). The piece on Hall would be worth watching for the 1080p clips of his work alone (though there's an inexplicable focus on 1991's Class Action, to the exclusion of noteworthier films like Marathon Man and Electra Glide in Blue), but it assembles such an impressive roster of Hall's peers--Haskell Wexler, Owen Roizman, Vilmos Zsigmond, Janusz Kaminski, and many others, including Conrad Hall, Jr.--to give testimonials that it's kind of essential, or at the very least geekily thrilling. Director Glenn Gordon Caron, for whom Hall shot Love Affair, identifies a melancholy in Hall that translated to his images, which was a real eureka moment for me in terms of pinpointing what Mendes's films have lacked in Hall's absence. American Beauty and Road to Perdition are calculated and at worst smug, yet visually they have a dirge-like quality that's irrefutable and finally sorta irresistible.
Composed of four unique sections ("Crime Scene Portraits," "Real World Organized Crime," "News Stories of the Day," "Inspiration & Adaptation"), the "library" meanwhile consists of various vignettes interviewing Mendes plus Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, the writer and illustrator, respectively, of the graphic novel on which Road to Perdition is based. Mendes has perspective here he doesn't in the vintage supplements, criticizing his tendency towards onanistic period tableaux, but remains happy with the finished product--as do the original authors, who don't even mind the screenplay's invention of the Jude Law character. Always hearing from the same three people does become a bit exasperating, but I appreciate the effort. I did, however, wish that these mini-docs, embedded within an interface, were bigger than a postage stamp (or expandable) during the montage of actual death-scene stills. Originally published: July 26, 2010.