(R) 4 1/2 stars

One of the tag lines for Road to Perdition reads, "Every father is a hero to his son." In the film, an aging crime lord makes the statement, "Sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers." Though set in the Depression Era world of the Irish mob, Road to Perdition is a movie about fathers and sons. The silky, extremely dark screenplay glides back and forth between a variety of father and son relationships, touching on moments familiar and using the gangster motif to illustrate the extremes of the parent/child dynamics.

It all started with a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner. Producer Dean Zanuck read it with enthusiasm as part of a pitch and shared it with his father, revered producer Richard D. Zanuck, who shared his son"s excitement. Writer David Self (Thirteen Days) expanded on the themes and deepened the relationships with his screenplay and white hot British director Sam Mendes agreed to take on the project as a follow-up to his extremely successful directorial debut, American Beauty.

Road to Perdition became a "first choice" film, one of those rare Hollywood productions where, at every level, both in front of and behind the cameras, the first person asked to join the project accepted. The resultant work possesses a sense of clarity seldom present in a studio production. Mendes, teamed with legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty, to name but a very few) and editor Jill Bilcock (Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue), has crafted a work of art, the best-looking film I"ve seen in a decade. Composer Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Six Feet Under) contributes a unique score that accentuates the remarkable imagery.

And then there are the actors. Tom Hanks gives a beautifully understated performance in the lead role, while Paul Newman lends his charisma to a supporting role, giving his character a dapper, refined and decidedly sinister authority. For what it"s worth, he is a lock for a slew of Best Supporting Actor nominations when next year"s award season hits. Once again, Jude Law strolls onto the screen and steals scenes, even going so far as to come up with a one-of-a-kind gait for the bizarre man he plays.

Daniel Craig leaves an indelible impression as the son of Paul Newman"s character, giving shape and form to a walking disaster area of a man. Young Tyler Hoechlin, a kid far more interested in real life with baseball than acting, handles the pivotal role of elder son to the Hank"s character like a seasoned pro, while Dylan Baker and Stanley Tucci make dynamic use of their few moments onscreen (Tucci, who has a tendency to grandstand, admirably tones it down here).

Pity poor Jennifer Jason Leigh, though, who doesn"t get the chance to do much of anything. Her substantial role was cut to less than a cameo appearance in the editing process. Perhaps the DVD will give us a look at what she brought to the film.

The story chronicles the fall from grace of Michael Sullivan (Hanks), a hitman who serves as right hand man and surrogate son to Chicago-area Irish gangster John Rooney (Newman). In his off-hours, Sullivan lives a quiet life in a terribly unhappy home with his wife, Annie (Leigh), and sons Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken). As Sullivan goes about his business in a subdued, professional manner, Connor Rooney (Craig), John"s son, envies the relationship between Sullivan and his father and plots a way to take over the business.

Everything turns when Michael Jr. hides in the back of his father"s car, determined to find out what the old man does for a living. He does, and ends up the sole witness to a killing by Connor and his pop. Soon, the Sullivan boy is marked for execution and Michael Sr. must try to protect the life of his child.

But don"t worry about the plot. This is first a tale of relationships and Mendes, to his great credit, manages to present a series of emotionally detached men without making an emotionally detached movie. The feelings are there, you just have to look closer, and the American Beauty veteran certainly knows how to do that.

Some viewers may be put off by the grimness of Road to Perdition, or by its violence, even though most of it takes place offscreen. Some may find the production overly arty, as virtually every shot is set up like a painting (as much as I appreciate the work here, I do hope that Mendes loosens up a bit for his next film). Hopefully, most viewers choose to savor the cinematic opulence of this dazzling shadow ballet.


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