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PopGap #32: Road to Perdition (2002)

PopGap #32: Road to Perdition (2002)

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by dorrk
28 September 2017

Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.

Last winter, for my Shadow Top 20 experiment during which I watched recommendations from MovieLens based on each of my 20 favorite movies, Sam Mendes' mobster drama Road to Perdition was an also-ran suggestion for both of my two favorite movies, the mob classics The Godfather parts 1 & 2. Despite the presence of these two organized crime movies at the top of my Flickchart, I don't love many other movies in the gangster genre, possibly because Coppola's masterpieces set a standard well out of the reach of even great filmmakers. Mendes clearly wanted Road to Perdition to evoke comparison to The Godfather, borrowing from it both visually and narratively, and it doesn't work is his favor. Even without that comparison, however, Road to Perdition is almost wholly misconceived — "unconceived" may be more apt — as it becomes torn between genres that don't mix, a relentlessly misplaced musical score, and no overall sense of purpose. If it hadn't been for Conrad Hall's solid-if-uninspired cinematography — he passed away prior to the film's release, posthumously winning his third career Oscar — it would be a wholly lost cause.

A woefully miscast Tom Hanks stars as a ruthless mob hitman with feelings, whose work for a patriarchal crime lord (Paul Newman) comes to a premature end when the boss's jealous and shifty son (the woefully miscast Daniel Craig) starts an intrafamily war. With his own adolescent son in tow, Hanks hits the road, disrupting the Chicago underworld however possible as he plots revenge.

My best guess would be that Mendes was inspired to direct Road to Perdition based on the art direction, costumes and visual scale of other mobster movies, as those are the only areas in which Road to Perdition feels competently assembled, but there is an artificiality to the production design that always feels arranged rather than inhabited. Based on a comics series by Max Allan Collins, both the dialog and scenarios within ROAD TO PERDITION are hollow and deeply derivative, with its only pretense toward originality its late, falsely sentimental attempt to transform its story of vengeance and murder into an inspirational family drama. Worse than just poorly aping The Godfather, Road to Perdition also owes a few debts to another of my favorite movie franchises, the six-part manga-based Japanese series Lone Wolf and Cub, but it fundamentally misshapes every one of its borrowed parts by shoving them into a package that wants to be both unforgivingly violent and gooily maudlin. The most fatal blow of this schizophrenic approach is that it necessarily presents what should be hardened career criminals into naïfs who have never before been confronted with the moral pitfalls of their livelihoods, and who become half-paralyzed by their newly considered contradictions between bloody work and idealized family.

The tonal problems with Road to Perdition become exacerbated when Jude Law is introduced as a master assassin, and Mendes presents him with broad comic flavor completely out-of-sync with the dour first hour. Ultimately, Road to Perdition feels like a mob movie that doesn't really want to be a mob movie (although it does want to play dress-up) — until the climax, which is so overbearingly artful (and narratively obvious, and begging credulity) that it feels like a guest director working from a different concept stepped in for that scene alone, before handing the helm over to Garry Marshall for the schmaltzy wrap-up.

Road to Perdition was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Ty Tag. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #368 / 2816 (87%), putting it at #3 out of 19 Gangster Movies on his Flickchart. Road to Perdition ranked on my overall chart at #3022 (23%), where it's my 47th favorite out of 56 Gangster Movies.

PopGap #32: Road to Perdition (2002)

Trailer for Road to Perdition (2002)