American Beauty 2?

Sam Mendes had a tremendous film directing debut with American Beauty, admittedly with the help of a tremendous cast and script. Now, three years later, he returns with his sophmore effort, The Road to Perdition. Does he still have the same key elements backing him? Can he perform the same visual poetry that seemed so easy the first time around?

The continued parallels to American Beauty may puzzle you because on the surface, the Road to Perdition seems like a very different film. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a hit man in the Irish mob who, in 1932, loses half his immediate family to frighteningly capricious whim of the local mob boss's son - which he spends the rest of the movie getting revenge for, his surviving son in tow.

I'm sure many of you will spot the similarities in the soundtrack, a few shots the films have in common - note the blood splatter on a white tile wall for one (before taking my analogy too far, please note Perdition is a much more violent flick, if at least somewhat artsy about it). Perhaps you'll even note some of the visual themes through the film - most specifically, water instead of roses.

But that's just the surface. As American Beauty propositioned us: Look closer.

The Sullivans are your typical dysfunctional family, from a time when they hadn't yet coined such a term. The first half dozen lines Hank speaks are flat, even disinterested. The hint is pretty strong that he does not relate well to his family. For Lester Burnham, it was the disappearance of joy into responsibilities. For Michael Sullivan, as we so patiently learn about his life, and what he wants for his family, it is entirely the weight of the responsibilities he has placed on his shoulders. In fact, there is little sign of joy in his life.

I heard someone say as I left the theater that this was not exactly a feel good picture. Well, it isn't, but at the same time, I disagree with the spirit of the comment.

In American Beauty, we have a down-tempo, but positively spun ending. In a word: bittersweet. Lester has finally started living a life he loves. On the Road to Perdition, Michael Sullivan accomplishes something far more important for his family, but something that means just about everything to the man, at similar cost. And yes, I'm trying not to spoil things too much for you. Still, there is something of a moral and uplifting, and oddly just, spirit in the film.

Hanks has put himself in a position to choose just about any roles he wants at this stage in his career. Sometimes, as observers, we can judge his choices and performances with perfect 20/20 hindsight, but we have to at least admit he's making interesting and challenging choices. It's hard to see him not get another Oscar nomination for this film, and I think it's arguably his most interesting performance since Philadelphia, though I have doubts he'll get another statue for it. The role is very much internal - you can draw parallels to Halle Berry's performance in Monster's Ball, but that character was allowed more opportunity to bring her emotions to the surface than does Hanks.

Where any statue granting should be done for certain is with Paul Newman and his portrayal of a gangland boss dealing with the contradictions of power and humanity in the form of his wayward son. We see an actor more at the top of his game than anyone can argue Hanks is. Too bad this was only a supporting role, as it would have been wonderful to see him on screen more often.

The rest of the cast is excellent, populated by some well known folk such as Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jude Law - the only one really allowed to stretch out into character as a somewhat mad photographer, who also is a hit man on the side.

I sincerely hope nobody tries to introduce a pan and scan video release of this film. Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall make full use of the frame, daring to make shots that would scare off anyone squeamish about others butchering their work. The safer choices of pulling down the colors of the film for mood, but softening the shadows to avoid a traditional film noir look, these are still interesting, and plenty beautiful to look at.

Is this another American Beauty? Yes, but also not quite. The story is very much its own, as are the characters. When it comes to what Mendes and Hall bring to the film, the similarities start adding up. But the sum result of those efforts is a film that stands on its own, and merely gives us an idea of the evolution of a director. Perdition does not say nearly as much as American Beauty is, but what it says is every bit, if not more, powerful, though probably a bit less accessible. This one comes with a hearty recommendation, though I still must leave a tip of the hat to Beauty for its cleverness.

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