Film producers make films because, well, that's their job, isn't it. And while they may talk about making films for art's sake or to raise awareness of some issue that exercises them, in the end they wouldn't be able to do the job unless they were earning a living at it. In the end the movies are just a business like any other, ruled by the bottom line and the pursuit of profit. (Not a terribly profound insight, I know.) Every studio would choose a mega-grossing summer blockbuster over a worthy but completely un-commercial arthouse picture.
And yet we have the odd phenomenon of the Autumn Movie. Autumn is when the studios wheel out the movies they hope will do well at the following Spring's academy awards. If you think about it, most of the pictures that have done well with the Academy have come out in the
autumn or winter of the preceding year: Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, and so on. So clearly the big studios haven't given up on quality just yet... or perhaps they just really, really like those little golden statues.
I saw The Road to Perdition this week and came out with the distinct impression that the producer, Richard Zanuck, had a real hankering in this direction. The director and stars all have Academy Award form, and this is a high-class, big-budget movie in a 'classic' genre (albeit one based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner). It almost seems designed to win Oscars in the same way that Spider-Man was designed to sell lunchboxes.
Set in the winter of 1931, it's the story of Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his relationship with his son, also named Michael (Tyler Hoechlin). Little do Michael and his brother Peter realise it, but their father is actually an enforcer for feared mob boss John
Rooney (Paul Newman). Tragedy strikes when Michael Jr. sees Rooney's unhinged son Connor (Daniel Craig) murder another gangster. Fearing Michael Jr will spill the beans, Connor attempts to kill him along with the rest of the family - but he and his father survive and go on
the run, the Rooney’s despatching the psychopathic assassin Maguire (Jude Law) in pursuit...
On paper this looks like another gang-related revenge melodrama, but several things raise it to another level. Firstly, Road to Perdition isn't afraid to let on that it has Themes. The title itself refers to Catholic doctrine (though there's another meaning in the context of the movie) and the first time we see Hanks he's packing a set of rosary beads as well as a handgun. More explicitly, it's about father-son relationships - between Hanks and his son, and Newman and both Craig and Hanks (whom he virtually adopted, we're told). There's a problem, however, in that although it's always apparent that these concepts are central to the movie, exactly what it's trying to say about them is slightly less clear.
The director is Mr Tubs himself, Sam Mendes, fresh from acclaim and an Oscar for American Beauty. They say that the mark of a great director is that he achieves his effects without the audience noticing - well, you can't say that about Mendes, as many of the key sequences of this film are shot in an intrusively stylised way: there's a slow-motion murder, a gun-battle in almost total silence (bar the soundtrack) and various other obvious camera tricks. Not that this is a complaint, of course, as the direction is generally excellent: this is the best-looking drama of the year, and Mendes also displays an unexpected talent for suspense and action sequences. But it's a very flashy kind of excellent. Thomas Newman's score is rather good too, with the exception of some penny-whistle tootlings to denote the
Irish American nature of proceedings (surely the musical equivalent of characters wandering on with red hair and pigs under their arms, shouting 'Top of t'morning to ye!').
Where I think the film falls down just a little bit is in some of the characterisation. As you would expect from a cast of this calibre, most of the acting is absolutely flawless: Jude Law,
Stanley Tucci, and Daniel Craig are all utterly convincing, while Paul Newman manages to outshine everyone else with a magnetic display of star quality. If there's a problem, then it's with Hanks himself. The key character of the movie, the elder Mike Sullivan is a collection of
disparate and at times contradictory traits: a devout Catholic, a ruthless killer, a loving if somewhat reserved family man, a gangster with a fearsome reputation, a man with a strict code of honour... Hanks does his very best in the role but still seems a little reticent, almost muted, never managing to weld all the elements together into a coherent characterisation (he's not helped by a moustache that makes him look more like a dentist than a gangland figure). The actor of Hanks' generation who might have been able to pull this off is Bruce Willis, who has the versatility for the part - plus audiences would be more likely to accept him as a killer, as this is the kind of role he's occasionally played in the past. But, of course, Willis' presence on
a project doesn't give quite the same imprimatur of class that Hanks' name supplies, neither does it guarantee the attention of the Academy.
But despite this, The Road to Perdition remains an extremely classy piece of work. Oscar nominations are virtually guaranteed, but no doubt nothing less was expected. Does it deserve to win any? Well, maybe; it's a little too soon to say. It's a film which aspires to be a classic, which is surely always something best left to posterity. For now, let's just say that it's rarely less than engrossing, and occasionally spine-tinglingly good.