The film Road to Perdition resembles nothing more than a finely made coffin: all square, burnished heft, a regal showcase for a body painstakingly made up to look alive. The sophomore effort by American Beauty director Sam Mendes, Perdition not only maintains the visual impact of his first movie but expands on it, with exquisitely composed frames and recurring images. But while Mendes' visual storytelling has reached a new height, depth has deserted his characters entirely. They stumble through the film, as waxen and two-dimensional as corpses. And without human warmth and spontaneity, even the movie's most stunning visuals fall flat.
Based on a graphic novel, the film is set in the 1930s and follows the fate of two Michaels: a father (Tom Hanks) and a son (Tyler Hoechlin). Over the years, incidentally, Hanks has shifted his image from comic schlimazel to Noble Everyman -- a remarkable transformation topped perhaps only by this latest dip into darkness. (For another flabbergasting story arc, see Robin Williams' move from hairy potty mouth comic to hairy sap to current hairy psychopath a la Death To Smoochy, Imsomnia and the upcoming One Hour Photo.)
In Perdition, Hanks appears with hooded eyes, that boyish jaw obscured by bloat and dissipation. His character's curious son, Michael Jr., is forever peering down dark corridors, seeing things he shouldn't -- his father laying a gun on the bed, underneath a picture of a parent and child gazing down calmly from the wall. It's a revealing moment, a neat inversion of American Beauty's exploration of the nihilism and explosive violence underlying suburban families. Perdition, this scene tells us, is about the family values underneath gangster life -- the clash of the family and the Family.
That clash comes soon enough. Michael Jr. sneaks along on his father's mysterious job assignment and sees the criminal nature of his father's work, done out of devotion to Irish gang boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), who is like a father to Michael Sr. The boy also witnesses the berserk behavior of the boss' son, Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig). Michael Sr. discovers junior, and soon both are on the lam, running from Connor, an unstable man with the protruding lower lip of a spoiled 2-year-old. He's as nasty as Gladiator's vexed emperor.
Father and son don't know each other well, and they try to get acquainted over driving lessons, a road trip and the happy consumption of apple pie and milk. Trouble is, it's hard to get to know Michael Sr. at all. He's supposed to be a tortured soul, torn between guilt over his deeds and love for his surrogate father and real-life son, but we wouldn't even know that if the clumsy dialogue didn't keep elbowing us in that direction. Hanks turns in a dutiful performance -- the eyes flicker, the lips tighten -- but Mendes is too prim to show us just how corroded this man's soul must be. When Michael Sr. kills, Mendes, like the Martha Stewart of filmmaking that he is, politely averts his eyes and fusses with gun smoke and spatters of blood. Everything is so perfectly arranged -- imagine Martha smiling, a perfect flex of facial muscles, as she prunes the crap out of a bonsai tree -- that Mendes winds up choking the messy shock right out of murder.
Meanwhile, Jude Law seems to have blundered into the wrong movie ("Wot's this? You mean this isn't Lord of the Rings, and I'm not Gollum?"). This jaunty, inhumanly beautiful man has been disfigured with a gimpy hunch, a stumpy bowler hat and a set of teeth as mildewed as the tiles on a locker room floor. A hit man who's after the father and the son, he's evil with a capital E, something that's rather tiresome in a movie that purports to delve into the complexities of sin and goodness.
Newman is the only who brings a spark of life to the film. The other actors seem like props in Mendes's perfectly framed images -- which are, admittedly, provocative. A coin covers the eyes of a dead man, is passed through the fingers of murderers. Looking out a window, a mother watches her sons' snowball fight; they both fall, pretending to be dead. Members of a crowd will later watch a scene of real, gorgeously choreographed violence from their windows.
The visual beauty is a pity, because Mendes could make something profound if he didn't try to be so damned important. He goes for the mythic but forgets that without the human element, grand just seems ponderous. As Michael Jr. creeps down a menacing corridor to see his father take out a gun, we can almost feel the Jungian archetypes: the labyrinth, Theseus preparing to battle the beastly ways of the unknown. But these images never combine with the force of a character's personality, and come across as merely empty showmanship.
Early on in the movie, Mendes captures an exquisite, complex image: Ice used to preserve a body drips onto the funeral flowers, like a spring thaw. I wish Mendes had let his film breathe in just this way, had focused less on preserving perfect moments and more on letting in organic warmth -- a touch of the fire promised by the word "perdition." But as it is, this movie's a beautifully crafted but lifeless thing, a cold road that goes nowhere.