Road to Perdition: Special Edition

Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stanley Tucci, Daniel Gray. Directed by Sam Mendes. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1(English), French, Spanish. 107 minutes. 2002. DreamWorks Home Entertainment 90147. R. $26.99.

Michael Sullivan is a hit man for an Irish mob in downstate Illinois in the 1930s. The mob's aging boss, John Rooney, looks on Michael as a son, and on Michael's two boys, Michael Jr. and Peter, as grandchildren. Rooney's own adult son, Conner, is a hot-headed thug. This tight little world flies apart when Mike Jr. witnesses one of Conner's murderous rages; the horrific act that follows only deepens the split. Michael and Mike Jr. flee for their lives while at the same time seeking to right the wrong that has been done them.

If I'm being a little sketchy on the details here, it's intentional. Much of the appeal of Road to Perdition is in the acting and style; the less you know about where the story is going, the more you'll be drawn into it. It's by turns fascinating, disturbing, engrossing, wrenching, gripping, and, more often than not, all of these at once.

It's not without flaw. Road to Perdition is one of those films whose characters should be hard to sympathize with. They aren't. The empathy we develop toward Michael Sr.—who is, after all, a cold-blooded killer—stems from Tom Hanks' performance, not to mention our difficulty in viewing Hanks as anything but a movie good guy. While Hanks is superb, he's someone the audience is less naturally inclined to sympathize with before the first frame lights up the screen—a Harvey Keitel or Christopher Walken, for example—would have given the writers and director, not to mention us, more of a challenge. And while Newman's John Rooney comes across as a kindly old gent—the proverbial crook with a heart of gold—he clearly did not raise a monster of a son, or lead a ruthless gang, by being Ward Cleaver. Yet only a single flash of anger in the story shows us that Rooney isn't all sweetness and light.

The only one who truly deserves our sympathy is Mike Jr. It's clear that Michael Sr. doesn't want his sons to grow up to be like him, but the early scenes drop hints that Jr. may be leaning that way—even though, as the film opens, he knows nothing about his father's job. The hints are very low-key. Mike Jr. seems like a nice, quiet kid who does his homework, behaves in school, and gives his parents no real trouble.

But despite my minor quibbles, Road to Perdition is a remarkable film. The DVD, however, is a mixed bag. The sound is superb in every respect, from Thomas Newman's beautiful score to the startling effects. There aren't many of them—this is a drama, not an action film—but they add a gritty realism to the story. The picture quality, however, while good, has a bit too much edge enhancement and black details that are often crushed—clearly, the late Conrad Hall's often very dark photography didn't transfer easily to video. The filmmakers' intent was to produce a film noir look by washing out much of the color. They succeeded, but it's too bad they couldn't have shot in black and white. The film would have been better for it.

The extras are limited but worthwhile. The director's commentary and an HBO "Making of" documentary are the best of the lot, a space-wasting promo for the CD soundtrack (appealing as that might be) the least necessary. There's also a separate full-frame release of the film, and a DTS widescreen version (which we were not sent for review). Be sure to get the one you want.

Released in midsummer, Road to Perdition fell victim to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind effect when it came to the year-end awards. It picked up a few nominations (and perhaps an award or two—as I write this, the votes are not yet in on the Oscars). But it was clearly the class act of the mid-year releases: a serious, beautifully crafted, tightly written, flawlessly acted film. It's unfailingly grim, but consistently gripping. A must-see.—TJN