Road to Perdition (US - BD)
Gabe takes a much need look back on Sam Mendes' second motion picture...
Following the surprising and sweeping success of American Beauty, first time film director Sam Mendes chose to continue his exploration of family themes in a definitively American setting with a prohibition era retelling of Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub Manga entitled Road to Perdition (based on Max Allan Collins’ comic of the same name). I hadn’t seen the film in eight years, not since its original theatrical release, and had mostly dismissed it as an unmemorable, minor sophomore slump. My memories are, apparently, not to be trusted in all cases.
The plot here follows Michael Sullivan, Sr. (Tom Hanks), a talented Mob enforcer working for John Rooney (Paul Newman). Rooney treats Michael as a surrogate son, often playing favourites over his actual son, Connor (Daniel Craig), who’s brash, violent and entitled behaviour is a constant source of contempt. Michael’s own family life is certainly gentler than Rooney’s, but efforts to keep his work secret from his sons makes for stilted relationships. One night in an effort to solve the mysteries behind his father’s work, Michael’s oldest son (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the back of his car and witnesses Connor and Michael at work. Conner, seeing an excuse to rid himself of his rival, takes the opportunity to put a hit out on Michael and his family.
Road to Perdition certainly deserves a second look, and I regret not giving it an open minded once over sooner. At the time of release (in the far away year of 2002) I saw the film’s meditative streak as pretentious, and assumed Mendes was revelling too deeply into the more self-important aspects of his first film. Comparisons to Hollywood burnouts like Michael Cimino seemed apt, but in retrospect such readings are unfair. The comparison is still somewhat apt in that it’s fair to assume Mendes was drinking a bit of his own Kool Aid, and who wouldn’t after sweeping the Oscars his first time as motion picture director (William Friedkin still hasn't gotten over his early success)? The bulk of the film is too sombre, but it’s not pretentious, it just suffers a lack of tonal balance. There are funny moments, but they’re mostly self-contained, and often feel as if they’ve fallen out of a Steven Spielberg film into Mendes’ lap (which probably isn’t a mistake considering Spielberg’s interest in Mendes’ early career). The comparisons to Cimino’s ilk are unfair when one considers the obvious fact that Mendes is learning between the two films, not going crazy with unlimited studio funds. Road to Perdition sees the still new director experimenting with a larger canvas, and trying his hand at filming action. Mendes would press his experimentation perhaps a little too far with his next film, Jarhead (a pointedly dull motion picture), but despite Road to Perdition not being as good as American Beauty overall, his growth as a filmmaker is interesting to watch, especially looking back from almost a decade away.
The enduring problem with the it the basic story, which is far from mishandled in terms of structure, but is generally predictable, and certainly oft-told. This is, of course, a simple case of taste, and to some degree the point. The traditional aspects of the narrative are clearly an intended piece of Mendes’ visually poetic puzzle. The simplicity of the story, along with the heavy emphasis placed on the legendary Conrad Hall’s cinematography (for which he earned a posthumous Oscar), creates a situation where the actual narrative is so secondary I find myself forgetting about the plot altogether. This might explain why it’s been so easy for me to dismiss the film over the years. The utter beauty creates an unfortunate disconnect between the audience and the characters, and makes it difficult to genuinely care about any dramatic events that may occur. The question I can’t answer is—is it a case of too much of a good thing, or a good thing stealing control from a relatively green director? Despite Road to Perdition feeling more like a last ditch effort to celebrate Hall’s images than a mainstream movie, the strong supporting cast mostly manage to distinguish themselves from all the utter prettiness. I had positively no memory of Daniel Craig, Stanly Tucci, Ciarán Hinds or Dylan Baker being involved with the film, so their appearances, no matter how brief, are all causes for celebration. Hanks’ performance, on the other hand, though certainly strong, suffers from his obvious miscasting. The star’s presence is continuously overshadowed by the supporting players, especially Jude Law. Law is almost always a strong presence on film, but assassin Harlen Maguire injects the film with real energy every moment he appears on screen. Like a shabby Terminator, Law presents a villain whose threat weighs heavily on the film even when he’s far from the action.
This new 1080p high definition transfer is pretty much the best we could ever expect Road to Perdition to look. The film is, as stated, most famous and celebrated for its perfectly old fashioned cinematography and anything less than incredible would be a disappointment. Details levels are, as Sam Mendes discusses in his Blu-ray introduction, the biggest cause for celebration. The details stretch from the most extreme close-ups all the way back to the busiest backgrounds, assuming the focus isn’t being pin-pointed to a specific foreground character. The most incredible bits include rainy nights, and black garbed figures set against virgin white snow. Conrad Hall’s images are so precise in their contrast that the overall darkness could’ve very easily have eaten up the smaller highlights. This sharpness leads to very little edge enhancement, with the exception of the otherwise gorgeous final scene between Hanks and Newman, where some of the black silhouettes are surrounded by thin layers of white. The film is practically monochromatic at times, revelling in multiple shades of brown, black and white. Warm browns have always been an issue on standard definition DVD, but here in high definition they’re clean, pure and natural. Poppy elements are pretty rare, but there’s an interesting consistency in the lightness of eyes, especially Newman and Craig’s baby blues. There are some expressively red tinged sequences throughout, usually in scenes defined by violence, and these are just as clean as the more subdued overall palette.
There’s no mistaking the filmic qualities of the transfer, including grain, minor flecks of print damage, and some shaking frames. The film grain, which is quite fine, but relatively consistent, looks somehow unnatural. The effect is similar to the Gaussian noise (a term I use as a Photoshop nerd) effect found on Blue Underground’s New York Ripper and Django Blu-rays. I’m thinking there was some minor digital noise reduction on the print, and this is the only noticeable side effect. It’s not a problem, and it’s easy to ignore, I was just slightly thrown by it.
I was expecting this Blu-ray to look great based simply on memories of Conrad Hall’s photography, but I was not prepared for such an impressive DTS-HD Master Audio track. There isn’t an excess of aggressive sound effects, and the sound design is mostly delegated to the centre track, but Thomas Newman’s Celtic-tinged, mournful musical score immediately grips every channel with the highest fidelity available. The instruments are expertly separated throughout the channels without drawing too much unneeded attention to the intricate sound design. Yet it’s not all warm music and subtle little stereo events, Road to Perdition is a film about gangsters, and gangsters tend to shoot guns. The first sequence of violence is seen through the eyes of a child who is unprepared for the sound of gunfire. Here the shots verge on deafening, with chest rumbling LFE support, but they don’t lose their sharp definition, or become even slightly distorted. This contrasting volume of the gunshots doesn’t really ebb throughout the film, and scenes of violence consistently stand out as the most impressive in terms of sound design. The aforementioned speakeasy scene is a great example, with its perfect representation of music seeping from behind walls, and subtle silencing of elements just before the shooting begins.
The extras begin with an introduction from director Sam Mendes, who lets viewers know that the film has never looked better. This is followed by Mendes’ solo commentary track. As per the norm the director is well prepared, and informative in terms of subtext, behind the scenes anecdotes, and technical work. The tone isn’t buoyant like Mendes’ Away We Go group track, but the overall seriousness doesn’t equate dull in this case, and there is very little blank space. Occasionally Mendes will point out a repeated or mirrored shot or scene that I totally missed watching the film on my own, and these go a long way in making the film worth re-watching. The sound quality does change noticeably a few times, which isn’t distracting, but leads me to believe the track was recorded in pieces.
The featuerettes begin with ‘A Cinematic Life: The Art and Influence of Conrad Hall’ (26:40, HD), a look at the glorious legacy of Road to Perdition’s Academy Award winning cinematographer. Hall’s own son, Conrad W. Hall ( Panic Room), acts as the basic narrator, but other cinematography all-stars are featured in an interview capacity including Janusz Kaminski ( Schindler’s List, Minority Report), Vilmos Zsigmond ( Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter), Roger Deakins[/i] (almost every great looking Coen Brothers Movie), Owen Roizman ( The Exorcist, Network), Philippe Rousselot ( Interview with the Vampire, Big Fish, Haskell Wexler ( American Graffiti, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), along with Mendes, director Glenn Gordon Caron ( Love Affair), and screenwriter William Goldman ( Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Not every example of Hall’s work is presented in high definition, but most of them are, and it’s a huge plus for the featurette, which is all about the beauty of Hall’s images. This should’ve been a full blown, feature length documentary, and is hampered by the lack of non-Paramount release footage (important work only included as stills includes Marathon Man, Electra Glide in Blue and Cool Hand Luke), but is overall a fine celebration of one of Hollywood’s most important icons.
‘The Library: A Further Exploration of the World of Road to Perdition’ (HD) is an interactive series of stills, text and cast and crew interviews that delve a little deeper into the film and the source graphic novel. These include discussions of the plot and fictional characters mixed with the real life inspirations (crime scene photography, Al Capone, Frank Nitti, John Looney, basic era news), and comparisons between the comic and film. I’d personally prefer these were presented as a standard featurette, and don’t really like how small the video footage appears on screen (framed within the menu system), but this stuff is quite informative and entertaining. It’s actually a little disappointing that so much of the real story surrounding the fictional plot of the film wasn’t included, and hasn’t been covered in any film before or since.
Next up are eleven deleted/extended scenes (20:10, SD), each available with optional commentary from Mendes. These are great as extras as Mendes was right to take them out of the film for pacing and repetition issues, but none of them are complete throw-aways, and watching them does add a little something to the overall experience. The elongated steady cam shot through the speakeasy is the one bit that probably could’ve been put back in the film, and the Al Capone sequence is the most exciting inclusion, even if it still has no real place in the finished product. The disc is wrapped up with ‘The Making of the Road to Perdition’ (25:00, SD), a general EPK featuring some behind the scenes footage and cast and crew interviews, and the original trailer in high definition.
It’s been a long time, and my memory was foggy to say the least, but Road to Perdition is worth revisiting, and this new Blu-ray is the perfect excuse. The new high definition transfer shows off Conrad Hall’s Academy Award winning cinematography, and the new, uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features fantastic dynamic range. And this isn’t just another catalogue dump with ported extras. Besides these A/V upgrades, fans might want to double-dip and dump their old DVD releases for ‘A Cinematic Life: The Art and Influence of Conrad Hall’ featurette, and the interactive ‘The Library: A Further Exploration of the World of Road to Perdition’. All in all this release is a pleasant surprise.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 3rd August 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Director Introduction, The Library: A Further Exploration of the World of Road to Perdition, A Cinematic Life: The Art and Influence of Conrad Hall, The Making of Road to Perdition, Deleted Scenes, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanly Tucci, Ciarán Hinds and Dylan Baker
Genre: Crime and Drama
Length: 117 minutes
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