If you want to talk about incredible cast lists, a few films spring to mind – Pulp Fiction, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Royal Tenenbaums. But Sam Mendes’ 2002 film Road to Perdition can go toe-to-toe with some of the best ensemble casts in recent memory.
Tom Hanks. Paul Newman. Jude Law. Daniel Craig. As a quartet, that’s hard to beat.
Of course, huge cast lists do not always translate into good movies (Smokin’ Aces springs to mind), so does Mendes manage to wrangle such exceptional screen talent successfully? In short, yes; his film is not just the sum of its parts.
Road to Perdition follows the life of Hanks’ Mike Sullivan, a hitman in an Irish gang run by John Rooney (Paul Newman) in Depression-era Chicago. Sullivan’s son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) sneaks along on a job, only to witness his dad and Rooney’s son Connor (Craig) mowing down some rivals. Sullivan swears his son to secrecy, but Connor, fearing for himself, tries to silence Michael for good, only to mistakenly kill his younger brother and mother Annie. After this heinous wrongdoing, father and son go on the lam from Rooney’s gang, fearing for their lives and seeking vengeance…
The plot of Mendes’ film, then, is not the most original. Gangster movies like Miller’s Crossing have already worked the Irish angle, and the central thread of wronged-man-seeks-revenge is far from uncommon in the gangster genre. Much like other gangster films (most obviously The Godfather trilogy), Road to Perdition is, at its heart, a family affair.
Setting a film in late 1920s America automatically adds gravitas and cool to any story – Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall play up to this era beautifully, lovingly recreating bustling speakeasies full of floozies and fedoras, city streets bursting with vintage cars and violent episodes. This is an easy style to use, but a hard one to make your own; Hall won an Oscar for his efforts, and deservedly so – every shot is wonderfully composed, and the scale of recreation is at times astounding. For all the familiar shots of tommy guns and cigarette smoke, there are Haneke-esque long pans across the flat Midwest, bleached-film beaches and anaesthetically white murder scenes.
Despite the excellence of the film’s framing and composition, the beating heart of Road to Perdition really boils down to one man, and as is the case in films from Philadelphia to Cast Away, that man is Tom Hanks. No-one inhabits the role of the put-upon man better than Hanks, and his incredible ability to emote without overacting is really second to none. Sullivan might be a killer, but Hanks paints him as a family man first and foremost: his scenes with Michael Jr. are heartbreaking at times, and the exchanges they share don’t feel staged, a very difficult effect to achieve.
Remarkably, in a film in which a child is a major component, annoyance doesn’t really come into it. Whining brats are the last thing we want to see on celluloid, but Tyler Hoechlin fills Michael Jr. with resilience and steel without infuriating the audience. Clearly, his comparative lack of acting chops are highlighted when he shares the screen with greats like Hanks and Newman, but making a child character likeable is not an easy task, and Hoechlin, 14 at the time of filming, manages it.
Newman himself is mesmeric in what many consider his last great screen performance. His John Rooney is magnificent, spouting lines like “none of us will see heaven” without a drop of pretension and retaining the roguish twinkle we’d expect from the man who played Butch Cassidy and Henry Gondorff. Newman and Craig as the fractured father and son are the real stars of this show, the latter perhaps giving his best performance to date as the unstable Connor, sporting a top Oirish accent and a manic edge in his piercing blue eyes. Connor is the most ruthless character in Mendes’ movie, and Craig gives the film’s best performance, far from easy in a cast with this kind of talent. Jude Law’s psychopathic assassin Harlen Maguire is given surprisingly little screetime, but Law cuts an interesting figure as the crime scene photographer whose fascination with death has led him to make the stories as well as document them.
However, Road to Perdition does fall victim to more than a few clichés. The climactic scenes in the rain echo the finale of Mendes’ celebrated American Beauty, and are beautifully shot, but feel a bit too obviously symbolic. The father-son dynamics have been handled before as well, and although brilliantly performed, it does feel as if we’ve seen this before on a few occasions. Additionally, the comedic scenes, whilst also smartly acted, feel a bit out of place, and the gallows humour when added to bouts of extreme violence amongst Irish gangsters will ring many bells for anyone who’s seen the majestic Miller’s Crossing (although there is one tree-lined location which appears to be a clear homage to the Coens’ film). The finale also leaves a bit to be desired, as Mendes leaves one loose end so clearly untied you see the punch coming long before you receive it.
Despite these flaws, Road to Perdition is still a very enjoyable film, especially for fans of the genre. The un-glamourised, brutal scenes of violence are shown to have consequences, and there is a tangibly consequential feel to every shooting: these aren’t just a bunch of anonymous hoods getting whacked, but real people. Part road movie, part family drama and part all-out gangster epic, Mendes’ film might not be the capo tutto di capi, but you certainly shouldn’t fahgeddaboutit.
8/10: Whilst it can’t stand up to the titans of the gangster back-catalogue like Goodfellas or The Godfather, Road to Perdition is a must for all gangster film aficionados. Anchored by three superb turns by Newman, Hanks and Craig, it’s a masterclass in both shot composition and acting brilliance. Although it falls prey to too many clichés and features too well-trodden a plot to be considered a classic, it’s still well worth your time.