Back in the early '60s, critic Manny Farber wrote an important essay titled "White Elephant Art and Termite Art." In the realm of cinema, White Elephant Art referred to "films" that, haunted by the European tradition, longed to be masterpieces. Termite Art referred to "movies" that never intended to get within a mile of respectability but nevertheless had a way of burrowing into the foundation of American culture, reducing the firewall between high and low art to sawdust. In contemporary terms, Gandhi is White Elephant Art. So are Dances with Wolves and Driving Miss Daisy. All three won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And if true Termite Art is a little harder to find these days, what with the firewall gone and Lord of the Rings considered Oscar material, how about The Blair Witch Project, which came out of nowhere and at least had studio executives reshuffling their rolodexes for a while.
A great big white elephant, Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition is paved with good intentions. It wants to send an important message about fathers and sons, which is that sons never really know their fathers. "If you want to send a message," Samuel Goldwyn famously quipped, "call Western Union." Mendes doesn't call Western Union. He calls cinematographer Conrad Hall, who's been capturing beauty ' including Mendes' Oscar winner American Beauty ' on film for over 30 years. Between the two of them, they've dressed up Mendes' pair of movies in Oscar-night finery. Starring Tom Hanks as a '30s Chicago-area hit man who turns on the mob when the mob turns on his family, Road to Perdition is one oil painting after another, the screen still wet with inky blacks and slushy whites and every imaginable shade of brown, especially the gold ones. Instead of a movie, we get motion pictures at an exhibition.
I'm exaggerating, I suppose. Road to Perdition has all the elements we associate with a movie: plot, characters, dialogue. But everything seems swamped in this funereal tone that's supposed to remind us of movies like The Godfather and Unforgiven. The movie opens with a funeral (an Irish wake, actually), and Mendes seems less interested in the assembled thugs than in the water droplets that slowly drip from the ice-packed casket. "There is water everywhere in the film," Mendes told The New York Times, "and it represents the mutability of life." (So that's what it represents.) You'd never know from watching this white elephant lumber across the screen that it's born of termites ' specifically, a comic-book novel written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner. About the only things Mendes and his scriptwriters have held on to are the comic's story and its paper-thin characters.
Hanks is Michael Sullivan ' shortened from "O'Sullivan" so that the two-time Oscar winner wouldn't have to risk an Irish brogue, I'm guessing. A family man as well as a hit man, Sullivan is the strong, silent type when the movie begins. In fact, he seems to be carrying the entire weight of the Great Depression on his shoulders. When his young son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), comes to tell Pop it's time for dinner, Hanks doesn't even look up, just waits an eternity and then, in a voice that's meant to convey an enigmatic something or other, whispers, "Thank you." Sullivan is supposed to represent all the fathers who remove themselves from their sons, living lives that the sons can barely imagine. The thing is, the skeletons in Sullivan's closet are real. No wonder Michael Jr. follows him to work one night, where he sneaks a peak at his dad using a tommy gun to take care of business.
I'd venture to say that most sons would be secretly elated to find out that their father was known as the "Archangel of Death." Michael Jr. seems rather unfazed, partly because Hoechlin isn't a vivid actor and partly because the role's written that way. The story's supposedly told from Michael Jr.'s point of view; he narrates it at a distance of many years. But the movie keeps leaving him behind, showing us things he never witnessed. Instead, we focus on the father-son relationship between Michael Sr. and John Rooney, a local mob boss played by Paul Newman. As usual, Newman came prepared: His voice has a breath of Irish air in it, and he's found a place to store the evil that a man in Rooney's position has to keep under wraps. But Hanks and Newman aren't given enough screen time together. A strangely inappropriate piano duet is meant to symbolize their mutual respect and love.
Like Robert Duvall's consigliere in The Godfather, Sullivan has been adopted into "the family," which inflames Rooney's actual son (Daniel Craig, who brings a nice psychopathic menace to the role) with jealousy. And before you know it, we're launched on a biblical story about good sons and bad sons ' Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau. If The Godfather tried to reconcile business and family with crime, Road to Perdition tries to add religion to the mix, and that's perhaps more moral weight than one movie can bear, certainly more than Hanks' performance can bear. He appears to have put on a few pounds, as if that might give him the gravity he's after. But Hanks just isn't one of those actors with mythic resonance. He's no John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. And he doesn't seem right in a period film. He's not bad, really, just a little hollow. He's hidden the hidden depths so deep that we wonder whether they're even there.
Compare him to Jude Law, who's allowed to run wild as Maguire, a crime-scene photographer moonlighting as a hit man for the mob. (Or is it vice versa?) When Sullivan and son take to the road, robbing banks like some family-values version of Bonnie and Clyde, Maguire is close on their heels, and it's one of the few times when the movie springs to life. The makeup artists have made a hideous mess of Law's hair and teeth, and he's added to the effect by holding his head down and forward and by splaying his feet when he walks. Why couldn't everybody else have been allowed to ham it up a little bit? Why must Road to Perdition wallow in its own mournfulness? Its pacing is slow, deliberate and unvarying, like a funeral cortege. And when we should be getting to know the characters, we're instead staring down empty corridors. Mendes has said that inside the film we're watching is a "secret film" about corridors.
What a load of white-elephant dung.