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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Road To Perdition 
reviewed by  Dennis Morton

In Sam Mendes’ new film, the road to perdition is paved with misconceptions. We may not see who gets hurt when machine gun fire misses its intended mark. ‘Collateral damage’ is of little import in most gangster movies, including this one. But we clearly understand, long before Road To Perdition is over, that traditional gangsterly values, such as honor and loyalty and devotion to family, can’t protect even the most human interests of gangsters. The principal characters in Road To Perdition have the capacity to
believe in transcendent values, but they’re walking advertisements for the notion that it really does matter ‘what’ one believes in. Fathers may love their sons, and sons their fathers, but their day jobs, or, in this film, their night jobs, matter. Which is to say that some values are more important than others. Which is to say that you can’t murder your adversaries on the job and expect much in the way of tranquility at home.

OK, enough of the abstractions. Road To Perdition is a mélange of genres. It’s at least part Western, part gangster, part road movie and part noir. It’s a straight forward narrative involving betrayal and revenge, and filial and paternal loyalty. 

The time is 1931. The place is Chicago and its mid-western environs. The characters are mostly underworld figures and innocent members of their families. A wrong is done and it must be avenged. 

Much has been made of Tom Hanks’ role in this film. Most critics and reviewers are suggesting that Hanks is ‘playing against type’. Well, that’s true only in that he plays a man capable of extreme acts of violence. Yes, he’s an underworld figure in Road To Perdition, but other than his profession, his character is not unfamiliar to us. He’s a devoted, if somewhat aloof, father and family man, with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong within the world he lives and works in. His character is smart and resourceful and, again, within limits, honorable. His hat may not be white, but it’s not quite black, either. Gray is the more accurate color and it symbolizes the lethal mix of values that govern his life.

Road To Perdition is populated mostly with bad guys, but we all know that a traditional narrative involves good guys and bad guys. Part of the fun in watching this movie is differentiating the good bad guys from the bad bad guys. 

If you’re a sucker for any of the genres that make up this movie, put Road To Perdition on your “don’t miss” list. Paul Newman doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he’s good here, and Tom Hanks and Jude Law are too. Mendes’ has chosen his actors well. Even some of the smallest parts are memorable. Look for a burley body guard and the club owner he works for. 

The script is well written and an entire review could focus on the camera work. Not withstanding the ugliness it sometimes portrays, the cinematography is extraordinary. So much is done so well that I found myself annoyed by only a few small continuity errors. The film takes place in the winter, but scenes of leafless trees alternate with scenes of trees in full foliage. It’s a minor fault. And possibly there are chronological difficulties with the voice-over that opens and closes the film. Decide for yourself.

All in all, Road To Perdition is a masterful effort from a still young film maker. I recommend it.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.

Copyright Dennis Morton 2002