Haunting Perdition

Intelligence, craft and poignancy are in such short supply at the movies that it’s a real thrill to experience a motion picture with plenty of all three. Road to Perdition is such a discovery-a rare and exemplary work of artistry and humanity that makes you think while it unfolds like the haunting pages of a novel you never want to end. Hands down, it’s the best film of the summer, and already a contender for both the Oscars and my year-end 10 Best List.

In his first film since the sensational American Beauty , Sam Mendes has woven a hypnotic visual tapestry of the Irish mob in Depression-era Chicago that centers on two families with different sensibilities about faith, family loyalty and fate. In a clinical departure from his usual roles as brave, right-thinking Capraesque heroes, Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a hit man for a gang of Irish bootleggers working for Al Capone with a loving wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two sons who know nothing of their father’s livelihood. The oldest boy, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), is a curious 12-year-old with resentment problems who doesn’t know how to feel loved. Paul Newman plays John Rooney, the rich, benevolent patriarch of the mob who is Michael’s boss and surrogate father. Rooney loves him like his own son, but even with all of his power and generosity, he has a problem, too-a real son named Connor (brilliantly played with scene-stealing fury by Daniel Craig) who is generally a cocky screw-up, but particularly insecure and jealous of his father’s obvious affection for Michael. Things come to a boil on a wintry night in 1931 when Michael Jr. accidentally witnesses his father’s participation in a mob killing and the trigger-happy Connor is dispatched to the Sullivan house to silence the whole family. In the bloody chaos that follows, he wipes out Sullivan’s wife and youngest son, but misses his main targets. Forced to choose between their careers in crime and their sons, Rooney puts out a contract on Michael, and Michael flees with his only surviving child on the road to Perdition, a town in Illinois where a compassionate aunt lives and the two fugitives can find safety from their pursuers. Perdition has a double meaning-as a geographical destination and as a word meaning “eternal damnation.” Before the movie ends, you will understand why. In the violent consequences of their six-week trip on the road together, father and son must become partners, trekking from bank to bank, withdrawing all of the assets held by Al Capone to cripple the gang that wants to destroy them. Along the way, the boy sees death in graphic close-ups, the father finds dangerous pitfalls in every highway diner, and they both learn to bond in unexpected ways that change both of their lives forever.

In a dark and brooding film of subtlety, nuance and menace, so much depends on razor-sharp performances, and in Road to Perdition they are as surprising as they are memorable. Tom Hanks never stoops to easy tricks to win audience sympathy. Crime is his elective, and he never apologizes for its lessons, but as a father, he has a heart. His unvarnished portrayal of a criminal with a conscience is complex and masterful without being showy or juicy. Hiding his affection for the boy behind a mask of steely reserve and tough resignation, he is just a small cog at the bottom of the crime machine, but he is still a loving father who will stop at nothing to avenge the murder of his family and protect his surviving son. Youngster Tyler Hoechlin has a tough role as the narrator whose memories of his father are being dramatized, but he more than matches Mr. Hanks in every scene. Paul Newman forcefully fuses detail with naturalism as the old mobster steeped in tradition who blows up his adversaries and then eulogizes them at their funerals. He’s Lear with a machine gun. As the wild card in his life, Daniel Craig is a charming psycho, evil and crazy with a hint of vulnerability. Special praise goes to Jude Law, usually hired for his good looks as well as his talent, unrecognizable as Maguire, a sleazy press photographer turned killer-for-rent who specializes in crime scenes of his own victims. With rodent teeth, missing tufts of hair and sallow skin with darkroom pallor, he looks twisted and moist, and reeks of developing fluid. How he meets his own lurid fate trying to stalk and kill Sullivan and son is one of the film’s most grueling visceral punishments. If some of your favorite people end up on slabs before the final curtain, think of it this way: It’s a movie about gangsters, and gangsters rarely live to reach a ripe old age.

Like a fine chef reducing a sauce, director Mendes whisks all of the elements with dexterity, allowing the audience to taste every ingredient before the finished glaze. Mood, atmosphere, scenery, vintage cars and Albert Wolsky’s meticulously researched brown palette of film-noir period costumes (no pinstripe Armani clichés here) all blend to look like Edward Hopper paintings. A diner isolated on a back road with the word “EAT” lighting the snow. The gingerbread and wainscoting of the Sullivan house, contrasted with the burnished wax floors of the Rooney mansion. The gunning down of Rooney’s bodyguards on a rainy street in complete silence. The ultimate confrontation between Sullivan and Maguire in a glass house on a windswept lake. The Irish wake, seen through the bewildered eyes of children, with a hood packed in melting ice that drips into buckets below the casket. Scene after memorable scene is captured in the midnight blue of Conrad Hall’s monochromatic cinematography to create a lasting impression. Everything adds up to a dazzling artistic vision of crime that lingers like the taste of lemon on the tongue.

Road to Perdition is basically a story of fathers and sons, but the details of so many fouled relationships are both shocking and emotionally wrenching in morally uncompromising ways. The characters in David Self’s fine screenplay have solid foundations, and the film’s narrative structure has a clear linear arc that packs an emotional wallop. Despite its style and varnish, the film still miraculously manages to hold onto its strong sense of humanity. It’s a magnificent accomplishment from every angle. Let’s face it: Nothing on the screen can take the place of great story-telling. The ability to tell a fascinating story coherently, truthfully and entertainingly while engaging the emotions and stimulating the mind is the essential element that separates the big films of history from the majority of the wormy, pointless, creatively bankrupt junk we’ve been getting lately. Road to Perdition honors the tradition wisely. It’s a thoughtful and responsible film, at a time when we need one badly.

Clayburgh’s Alarming Return

It’s nice to see the lovely and accomplished Jill Clayburgh back in a leading role, but I can’t escape the troubling conviction that the sex comedy Never Again is the wrong one. There may be a need for a love story about older people seeking more positive values than clipping double coupons for low-fat mayonnaise at the Stop and Shop, but I don’t think the proper alternative to bad movies about teenagers trying to get laid is more bad movies about middle-aged people trying to get laid. Why do American comedies marketed for female consumers always peddle the lie that sex is the only restorative substitute for loneliness? Doesn’t anyone fall in love anymore listening to songs by Rodgers and Hart?

In Never Again , Grace (Ms. Clayburgh) is an aging divorcee whose only daughter leaves for college. Her apartment is empty; her life is boring. Christopher (Jeffrey Tambor) is an exterminator with a cartoon gargoyle for a mother and a pest-control business inherited from his father. He hasn’t had a relationship with a woman in so many years that he’s beginning to think he may be a gay man trapped in the body of a latent heterosexual. After a disastrous fling with Internet dating, she ends up with a dwarf. After rifling through porno ads, he ends up with a transgendered bulldozer. For reasons only director and writer Eric Schaeffer can fathom, they both end up in a gay bar where they’re both so out of place it’s only natural they should go home together. The rest of the movie crosses the trashy, estrogen-fueled girl talk of Sex and the City with the mean-spirited chauvinism of the films of Neil LaBute. Ultimately, it collapses under the weight of its own contrived and annoying silliness.

Frankly, I find it alarming (not to mention totally unsexy) watching two people who look old enough to collect Social Security going through the motions of trying to act crude, lewd and preposterous. Mr. Tambor, a good actor who is too fat and gray to play age 54 when he looks 70, might make an acceptable Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof , but he’s pretty embarrassing kissing a cowboy stud in a leather bar, then saying, “This isn’t working-maybe you should just blow me.” Ms. Clayburgh looks positively delusional in an XXX-rated sex-toy shop checking out butt plugs, or answering the door to meet her mother wearing a strap-on dildo.

Occasional stabs at wisdom filter through the fermented dialogue with lines like “Love’s the easy part-it has so little to do with whether you stay together or not!” But in the context of all the sordid desperation, homilies sound like quotes from Dick and Jane books. Maybe somewhere there’s a midlifer with a rampaging libido who is as lovely and articulate as Jill Clayburgh, but we’ve never met. If I had returned from college for Christmas to find my mother in bed with a hairy stranger doing the inverted hippo in the Bill Blass sheets, I would have made a citizen’s arrest.

Haunting Perdition