Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002) is shot by the undoubted master of cinematography – Conrad Hall: the man who lit every rose in American Beauty (1999) with an individual spotlight; the man who reportedly cried when looking through the viewfinder at Paul Newman because he was “just so beautiful”; the man who, once fully appreciated by the end of his career, won Acadeny Awards left, right and centre.
Each frame in Road to Perdition is a photograph with its own story (so many images adhere permanently onto one’s mind) and never has such elegant control of light and darkness been seen. Hall is completely unafraid to black out a high-profile actor’s face and unafraid to experiment if it could benefit the final film. There is a beautiful shot of Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) sitting alone, having deeply upset his father, which slowly pushes in whilst delicately throwing the actor, temporarily, out of focus – a conceit that perfectly conveys the character’s benumbed state of mind.
Or, take the ‘vertigo’ effect shot of Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) as he walks through Chicago – the focus pull in and simultaneous zoom out – that makes the world seem to revolve around the actor. This really is the swan song of a man completely devoted to the art of cinematography.
Aesthetics aside, the film’s main flaw is that the plot is ‘too perfect’. The director’s desire to maintain perfection in face of the critics (this is Mendes’ difficult second film after American Beauty, remember) actually precludes it from containing any diegetic originality. It ticks all the boxes: a by-the-numbers, 3 act script; world-class actors in all the right roles; twists in all the right places; complete character arcs and a tidy clean-up of all its loose ends. And this is what ultimately holds it back from greatness.
This is a film that, on the surface, sets out to challenge the audience’s conception of morality. It is suggested to us, in the opening narration, that this film will be an exploration into whether or not Hank’s Sullivan was a good man. The answer, by the end of the film, is undoubtedly a resounding “YES!” as Mendes allows the proceedings to lapse into ‘Spielbergian’ sentimentality. Whilst the film should be sparking deep contemplation about morality in its audience – it, instead, leaves them with nothing to think about.
To get an audience to question their long-held conceptions of morality, you need to shake the very foundations of your film by counteracting conventions. What Road to Perdition needed were true ‘curve-balls’: jagged, non-parabolic character arcs, untied loose ends that force audience contemplation and re-viewing, and a more non-linear plot that withholds or removes obvious declarations of character motivation. Let the audience guess why a character is doing something, let the audience be surprised by unexpected events (that are not just textbook twists) and, most importantly, leave some loose ends untied to allow the audience to think after the film has finished. In short, if a film’s elements add up to a perfectly cohesive, intelligible whole – there is nothing left to investigate.