The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Road to Perdition

Right up there with pizza, hot dogs, baseball and the Windy City nickname, the city of Chicago is often remembered guessed it. Gangsters! From Al Capone to the Untouchables and a whole lot of violence in between, Chicago's gangster history is well-documented, a feature well covered in film and pop culture. One of the best though? It's not based on a true story, but you can definitely see it happening in real life. Here is the excellent, beautifully told, stylish gangster drama, 2002's Road to Perdition.

It's the late 1920s and young Michael Sullivan (Tyler Hoechlin) is your typical 12-year old. He fights with his younger brother, struggles some at school, and loves reading about heroes of the old west. That relatively peaceful life is about to be thrown for a loop. His father, Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks), is a brutally efficient enforcer for an Irish mob boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), in Rock Island, Illinois.  One night, Michael follows his father on a nighttime job and witnesses a hit that he clearly was not supposed to see. The unintentional incident steamrolls into something far bigger and far deadlier than young Michael ever intended. Now, father and son are on the road, hiding out and simply trying to survive, all the while a sinister hired killer, Maguire (Jude Law), hot on their trail. The elder Sullivan is now looking out for himself, his son, the killer hunting them and at the same time enacting a plan to exact vengeance on those who have wronged him.

That's not my best work putting together a plot synopsis. I don't want to give too much away in terms of the story because there are some genuinely good twists that do come as a bit of a shock. A lot going on in terms of storytelling overall, but getting there is half the fun in this 2002 gangster/crime drama.

There are more action-packed gangster flicks, more mainstream than this film, but I don't know if there's too many better. You look at the entire package, and this is one excellent movie, a classic if you ask me. This is director Sam Mendes' follow-up to 1999's American Beauty, and 'Perdition' is a gem. I'll get more specific as we go, but there's just so much going on and it all flows together. The story is exceedingly simple but with complex layers mixed in. It's not always clear where it's going, but Mendes know where it is going, and that's what is most important. The characters, the story, the filming techniques. It is all pretty flawless if you ask me. My recent viewing was the first in many years, and it resonated more now than in previous viewings. Scary to think 'Perdition' is already 13 years old but this is a film that has definitely held up.

This isn't a perfect movie. But judging it solely based on technical features? It's pretty perfect. The cinematography, the set design, the style, the musical score, the scene-to-scene visuals, my goodness, 'Perdition' is on point. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (earning an Academy Award win) is at the helm of a gorgeous movie. It's not a colorful movie -- lots of dark tones -- but entire scenes appear almost as if they were lifted out of a painting. You feel like you're in 1930s gangster-dominated Chicago throughout. The cars, the sets -- including Chicago locations -- the wardrobe, everything feels like you've time-traveled. Some movies, they don't call attention to these things. 'Perdition' does it in effortless fashion. It doesn't call attention to its prowess, it just does it and lets you appreciate it all. Also picking up a nomination (albeit without the win) is Thomas Newman for his musical score, a heavily Irish-themed score that elevates the movie in so many scenes, one after another. Give it a sample HERE.

The guts of the story is the father-son relationship between Michael Sr. and Michael Jr., but also between Michael and his surrogate father of sorts, Newman's Rooney. There's also Rooney's tortured relationship with his own son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Hanks plays against type a bit as Sullivan, dubbed the Angel of Death, a hard-edged man who is far from an emotional father. He struggles to be close with his eldest son mostly because he sees so much of himself in his son. Likewise, the son wants to be close to his father but isn't quite sure of how to go about that. Through the most unfortunate of situations, they're forced to become closer on the road, running for their lives, and with Michael trying to exact revenge against his previous employers. Their scenes together are quiet and understated, two individuals getting to really know each other for the first time. An excellent performance from Hanks as well as young Hoechlin who holds his own and then some.

Across the board, there isn't a weak performance in the cast. As John Rooney, Paul Newman is a scene-stealer in an emotional, quiet part. Not a ton of screentime, but he steals those scenes like a true pro. It's cool as well to see a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig as his weaselly son, Connor, always causing trouble that he can't get himself out of. Also in the playing against type department, Law is perfectly creepy as Maguire, the sinister hired killer who's tracking the Sullivans as they're on the run. Yeah, he's efficient and almost emotionless, but he clearly gets some enjoyment out of his horrifically bloody work. Also look for Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, an Al Capone underboss in Chicago, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael's loving wife, Liam Aiken as Peter, the younger Sullivan brother, and Ciaran Hinds as an underboss for Rooney who may be in some hot water.

For a gangster/mobster movie, the action isn't left and right machine gun pacing. When it comes, the violence is quick and startling but not horrifically graphic. Because it isn't used as much, when it does pop up on-screen, it is far more emotionally effective. One late shootout is easily top 5 most stylish action scenes I've ever watched, silence and darkness lingering in the air. The immediate follow-up is equally memorable, an extended shot following one character through an elegant Chicago hotel with quite the punch of a finale. The ending isn't especially surprising but it is especially effective. A great movie, one I really enjoyed catching up with and can easily and highly recommend.

Oh, and just as a trivia tidbit, my Uncle Bob is an extra in the movie. He's clearly visible in one scene a little over halfway through the movie as Hanks' Michael walks into a bank. Yeah, he steals the movie.

Road to Perdition (2002): ****/****

1 comment:

  1. Never got into Miller's Snoring, that's what I feel about this one.