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American Beauty follow-up is one part Edward Hopper, one part Frank Miller

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: the year’s crop of Marvel movies, including the new X-Men: Days Of Future Past, has us thinking about comics adaptations from outside the superhero spectrum. 

Road To Perdition (2002)

For the brunt of its running time, Road To Perdition feels less like an adaptation of a graphic novel than it does an homage to the handsome period dramas of the 1990s—Max Allan Collins’ book was clearly inspired by the Japanese manga Lone Wolf And Cub, but Sam Mendes’ film initially seems more indebted to the likes of Miller’s Crossing. A didactic moral drama about preserving innocence in a country that has always profited from iniquity, Road To Perdition feels painted rather than drawn. Mendes’ compositions may have the fixed severity of comic-book panels, but the late and legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall colors 1931 Chicago like it’s an Edward Hopper canvas come to life. The film’s visual heritage is a constant tug-of-war until the very end, when the two modes collide in an immaculate orgy of rainswept gunfire that anticipates the speed-ramped artistry of 300 and points to the future of comic-book movies.

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Mendes’ first movie after winning the Best Director Oscar for his directorial debut (American Beauty), Road To Perdition is the kind of project that most filmmakers would have to spend a lifetime of cachet in order to make. The story is told from the perspective of young Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), a pubescent kid whose father (Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan Sr.) is a feared and loyal enforcer for the local crime lord and town patriarch, John Rooney (Paul Newman). The boy’s dad loves him from a distance, with the succinct severity that several generations of American men were conditioned to raise their sons.

All is well and good until Junior’s curiosity gets the better of him one night, and the kid—somewhere between naïve and brain dead—sneaks along to watch his dad at work. Through a crack in the walls of an illegal distillery, Junior watches his father mow down two men with a tommy gun after Rooney’s maniacal son (Daniel Craig simultaneously laying the groundwork for both James Bond and King Joffrey) goes rogue during a routine bit of intimidation. By sunrise the next morning, Rooney’s son has murdered Junior’s mother and younger brother, and the two surviving Sullivans are speeding to Chicago for safety.

Like a lot of films that feel intrinsically pitched towards greatness but fall a bit short, The Road To Perdition has slipped into a comfortable obscurity in the 14 years since its release. Boasting Paul Newman’s last great performance and Tom Hanks’ first intriguingly ambiguous one, Mendes’ second feature endures as a quietly confident adaptation that’s at its best when celebrating its heritage, as it does in the second half by introducing Jude Law as a vaguely necrophilic hit man in a sequence that’s cut to look like three panels of a comic book. When Paul Newman looks at Tom Hanks and declares “This is the life we chose, the life we lead, and there’s only one guarantee: None of us will see heaven,” it’s enough to make you wish every prestige picture took a page or two from Frank Miller.

Availability: Road To Perdition is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is also available to buy or rent on iTunes. 

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