Friday, July 12, 2002

Road to Perdition (IMDB) (Netflix)
When sons find out what their fathers do for a living, it's often a moment for incomprehension, indifference or disappointment. But Tom Hanks is no abstract paper pusher, and when his 12-year-old discovers his profession, the bonds of trust will be tested, and people are going to get killed.

This is only Sam Mendes's second film (following the critical and commercial success American Beauty) after dominating the London stage scene, but he's learned a great deal from the early days of his directorial career, when Steven Spielberg had to sit him down with the dailies and explain to him how to shoot footage that would actually cut together. It also helps that he has three generations of acting pros in Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law, a hall-of-fame cinematographer (Conrad Hall), and a haunting score by Thomas Newman. Chicago and the Illinois plains haven't looked better, and Mendes's theatrical sensibilities exploit this larger Midwestern canvas to great effect. Paul Newman nails his supporting bit as patriarch of the extended Rooney family/gang, Hanks adroitly balances the father-as-hit-man duality (although he could be a little more evil when he's in enforcer mode), and Law is enjoyably unsettling as the crime photographer who creates his own subjects.

The overall effect is perhaps too restrained, possibly from the actors being so respectful of each other's abilities that they're overly afraid to "get caught acting" by their peers, but this is straining to find flaws. At the risk of creating unmeetable expectations, pencil pretty much all concerned in for Oscar nominations. (For a very different family-man-as-hit-man drama, try the unjustifiably unseen Panic, with William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland, Barbara Bain and Tracy Ullman.)