Row Three has been a hotbed for discussion on the merits of graphic novels as source material for film projects, with a palpable tension between those who write for the site and those who comment on it. One of the films that is often brought up as an example of successful adaptation in this vein is Road to Perdition, a film that coincidentally was voted by contributing writers here as one of the best films of 2002. Keeping with tradition, I’ve not read the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins that this Sam Mendes’ film is based upon. I suspect, however, the movie is loyal to its source material considering how much it feels like a panel narrative with art direction encasing everything with a sense of drawn deliberation. Ang Lee’s Hulk came out a year later and was praised by many for its merging of panel narrative and cinematic storytelling, and while Road to Perdition does not play so literal with its conceit, the same affection for the source medium exudes from frame one of the film, and is the deserving precursor to this fetishistic graphic novel style.
On this, my second viewing of Road to Perdition, I was surprised to find how little of the film I remembered, and that in the seven years between viewings virtually all that was left of my impression of the film was the stagy visual flare with its deep shadows and muddied palette, like a bunch of storyboards one after the other, perfectly composed, enshrining the beats of what was to happen. I had a vague sense of being underwhelmed by the film, but it was only after seeing it a second time that the reasons for this reaction returned. Despite its apparent loyalty to the panel composition of its source material, a formula for brevity one would think, somehow the film has a listless quality to it that even when it is going somewhere it drags its feet doing so. The book-end device of the principle narrator of the film, the young Michael Sullivan, starts things off on this same proverbial wrong foot, as we begin with an event that happens near the end of the film and work our way toward it – a storytelling convention that has long since lost its luster. In between these unnecessary summations of what we are watching, is a fairly straightforward story of a man who lives a double life as a gangster and family man and finally makes one valiant attempt to break free of the criminal lifestyle and do right by his kin.
There are some well-laid set-pieces that squeeze out a bit of tension, mostly scenes dealing with the elder Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks) encountering the hired killer/murdered victim photographer played toothily by Jude Law, but otherwise scenes are telegraphed in that familiar throwback way of simple gangster pictures, adding to my fidgety tedium. While I loved Thomas Newman’s score in Mendes’ last film, Revolutionary Road, his take on the thirties gangster road movie in Perdition was too loud and distracting and not even in an anachronistic way evocative of classic Hollywood could this dissonance be justified. It just felt clumsy.
What saves this film for me from being an utter waste of time is the richness of the visuals, the strong whiff of thirties nostalgia that has carried me through this marathon, and the performances that work within their pot-boiler functions of plot and give much needed nuance. Paul Newman as the Irish mob boss Mr. Rooney takes what could have been a one-sided villain and amps up the complexity of the whole story with this conflicted and sympathetic pursuer of Michael and his son. Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan does his best to wash away the charisma of his persona to become a very gruff and uncomfortable father and hired gun that in many ways reminds me of the father character in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He has little to say or provide by way of fatherly advice but has a pragmatic wherewithal to protect his son at all costs, and this grim demeanor is played out nicely in the performance. Daniel Craig as the jealous son of Mr. Rooney is also a nice surprise, though adds less nuance than others. Chief among them has to be Jude Law whose character embodies the nearly nihilistic greed of capitalist society in the throes of economic collapse, and who will slit your throat for a dollar without hesitation.
Overall, the film does its job and gets out, there is very little depth to mine, very little to think about. Despite its weighty themes of redemption and salvation they are more lip service in this kind of arch preoccupation with surface over content. Road to Perdition is pulp fiction with a hint of something more scratching at the surface but never quite breaking free of its drawn-in boundaries.