"Thus open the gates of paradise."

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Road To Perdition

17 Jul 2002

Before we can have an intelligent conversation about this film, let me start off by answering that old chestnut question of high-school English tests: "Explain the title" (10 marks). The usual answer: according to some dictionary-or-other, the word "perdition" refers to the process of losing one's soul, or simply "hell", if you prefer. But you already know this. Everybody knows this. I mention it only to refresh your memory.

I think I could describe "Road To Perdition" by taking just a single frame of film from about 5 minutes in, and holding it up to the light. Here -- have a look. It's a picture of a wake. The well-dressed man is Paul Newman. That's his house. You can tell what he's about by the look in his eye and the cut of his suit. In the crowd, that's Tom Hanks, looking a little heavier than in "Castaway", which is good because in this film he's playing a heavy, someone who does things to people. Before the film ends, he'll do a lot of things to a lot of people. And he'll do it with his 12 year old son, played by Tyler Hoechlin.

When I first started thinking about Hank's choice in roles, I had somehow convinced myself that he's played nothing but fluff -- "You've Got Mail', "Toy Story", "Forrest Gump", "Sleepless in Seatle", "Bachelor Party", "Splash" -- the list goes on an on. But then I actually read the full list, and found films I had seen but had somehow slipped my mind -- "Apollo 13" (which I had seen only 2 nights before), "Philadelphia", "Saving Private Ryan" -- films in which Hanks gets a chance to display the range of which he's capable. Add "Road To Perdition" in to the second group. It's a good role, well-executed. He plays a thug who has to find some balance between the things he does, and the rewards for his actions. On the one hand, he works for a man who controls people through fear and intimidation. On the other, he is well-paid, and is able to provide for his family. Is it wrong to put food on the table? To be able to put a roof over the heads of your loved ones? What will you do, how far will you go to protect your family? That's the story's question.

In what turned out to be an undistinguished slough of forgettable summer films, this is the only one what stood out. Director Mendes is back with with cinematographer Conrad Hall who photographs the movie as if it was a photograph, each frame exactly as it should be. It also sounds curiously familiar, no doubt because it was scored by Thomas Newman, who also worked with Mendes on "American Beauty". Now, I liked the music from "American Beauty" a lot; it fit the film superbly. But does a style which suits undistinguished suburbia also fit the depression-era mid-West? I wish it did, and that's the only even remotely negative thing I have to say about this film.

The film is currently making the rounds of the repertory cinemas. If you get a chance to see it in a proper theatre, do it. If you have to settle for DVD or video tape, at least sit close to the TV. And no bathroom breaks.

Related Links
Road To Perdition (Official Site)
Road To Perdition (IMDB)