This is my favorite image from Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002), the subject of this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at the venerable Film Experience. It’s six gangland silhouettes, rain-slicked and monochrome, dynamically posed and ready for anything. (Well, anything but Tom Hanks with a Tommy gun.) It’s a terrific composition in depth, with diagonal lines converging at a horizon—a geometrical schema used again and again and again by Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall (who earned the hell out of his posthumous Oscar), but which retains its focus-narrowing power.
Light diffused by rain grants the shot moodiness and gravitas. You don’t even need Thomas Newman’s score to know that this is a climax (the first of several) or that the man they’re glancing around for, the stealthy Mike Sullivan (Hanks), is lurking just behind the camera. Like so much of the film, this shot plays as distilled Depression-era iconography; it just screams “GANGSTERS.” And when that visual bombast is wed to Jill Bilcock’s punchy editing (that hotel showdown, wow), it makes for some thrilling, morally charged genre filmmaking.
I say “morally charged” because Road to Perdition is about fathers, sons, the cycle of violence that binds them, and Mike’s attempt to remove his son from that cycle. The top pair of eyes there belongs to Mike’s son at the instant he learns his father’s a murderer; it’s a loss-of-innocence shot that’s reprised a couple scenes later by Daniel Craig, playing a mob boss’s sniveling, smirking son, when he kills half of Mike’s family. In both cases, the eyes are disembodied and wide-open, boiling over with terror whether they’re witnessing a shooting or performing one. The parallels deepen both shots, linking these sons’ traumas, making the sight of their disbelieving eyes all the more haunting.
Even these brief close-ups are invested with so much emotive energy. Although Road to Perdition occasionally gets so gorgeous and glossy that it verges on crafts-and-prestige porn, it’s shot and edited so intelligently that it’s never less than viscerally engaging. Honestly, I could’ve gone with so many different “best shots”: epic landscapes, phallic guns, or horizontally legible compositions that bespeak the film’s panel-by-panel comic book origins. Maybe one showcasing the film’s archetype-tweaking performances by Ciarán Hinds (poor sap), Dylan Baker (prissy accountant), or Jude Law (cold-blooded hit man). At its best, Road to Perdition is a tense, meticulous recreation of the Chicago-area underworld, a series of sepia snapshots streaked with blood.