Road to Perdition is new to Netflix and one of the most beautifully shot films of the last 20 years. It is a violent and stately gangster movie about revenge, violence, and fathers and sons. It is enthralling, yet somehow keeps the audience at arms length from the heart of the story.
The film tells the story of Michael Sullivan Jr. a young man in Illinois who in the winter of 1931 decides to find out what his distant and mysterious father does for a living. He stows away in his dad’s car and discovers that his dad is an enforcer for a gangster. He witnesses a murder and his life changes forever.
To begin, the cast is incredible. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan Sr., the enforcer who is stoic and calculating, but has a deep well of emotion in his eyes. Paul Newman in his final role plays the gangster who sees Michael as the son he always wanted instead of the wretched son he has. That son is played by Daniel Craig. James Bond himself has an early role here as a weaselly son who has turned sour and vile because of a terrible relationship with his own father. Jude Law shows up as a particularly nasty hitman who likes to photograph the people he murders. Are there women in the movie? Yes, but they don’t get to talk. This is a story about fathers and sons.
Not only was this Paul Newman’s last role on camera, but this was the final film of Conrad L Hall. He was a legendary cinematographer who filmed some of the most influential films in movie history. His work here absolutely makes the movie. Every frame is a perfectly composed work of art. His use of color, light, and motion is the stuff most cinematographers dream of. It is a gorgeous film to look at. Any shot from this movie could be framed and hung on the wall in an art museum. It is gorgeous to look at. The film has an elaborate thematic use of water. Bath water, holy water, snow, and especially rain come into play to create sweeping metaphors that elevate the movie. The movie is so painterly that you could watch it without sound and still understand every moment. One shot in particular stands out in which Daniel Craig’s character is seated at a table after being shamed and chastised. Everyone at the table rises and leaves him sitting alone. The camera moves toward him slowly. He is left alone and isolated. Finally, his father and Michael walk out of the room behind him. The focus shifts to his father walking out on his son with his arm around Michael’s shoulder. The focus pulls back to Craig as he seethes. It’s good filmmaking and a great visual metaphor that perfectly encapsulates his character.
So with great performances, and award winning cinematography why does the film feel distant? Why doesn’t it play on the heart strings the way it could? Three reasons, the movie is a little too stately and artful. It is often a piece of art to be admired rather than a work that pulls the audience in. Every frame is a work of art, but that high art quality can create a distance. When a character weeps in a perfectly lit and perfectly posed manner I noticed the perfect lighting and framing before I felt the impact of the emotion. The second reason is that the film moves too quickly from its emotional beats. When someone is killed, the characters take a moment and then move on to the next thing. It’s too fast. They move on too quickly. Finally, Michael is so reserved and distant from his son. He is closed off and isolated, and his goal isn’t to connect with his son. This isn’t about a father and son building a relationship. It’s about how hard those relationships can be when the father keeps his son at arms length. If his goal was to connect with his son, they’d spend the film working through their relationship and have a big hug and a game of catch at the end. The relationship building isn’t the goal or the focus here. It doesn’t follow the emotional beats these movies usually follow, so like Michael himself the movie seems distant.
That said, this movie is absolutely worth watching. It’s has gorgeous visuals. It has fantastic performances. It has thrilling scenes. Jude Law is genuinely scary and Paul Newman is as powerful as ever. The movie won’t make you cry, but it will be worth your time. It’s definitely my cup of tea. – A-