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Road Hazard
by Nathaniel
of The Film Experience

There is something about Sam Mendes' new picture Road to Perdition that feels both frightened and overconfident. That's an odd juxtaposition, but one that makes complete sense, given his rarified circumstances. Mendes, or so the legend will probably have it, entered the Hollywood fray on top of the A-list with the Oscared zeitgeist bulls-eye American Beauty. For his sophomore effort, which anyone alive would understand to be crucial in a robust Hollywood career, he chose that most American of genres, the gangster film. Perhaps the grandeur to which the genre lends itself (in no small part due to The Godfather films) appealed to his entitled confidence and immediate stature in the industry. But such choices can often reek of predetermination as well. For whatever faults American Beauty may or may not have, one cannot claim it to be a sure thing, prestige-wise. It could have gone either way. A restrained, even solemn period gangster picture, on the other hand, with insanely beautiful and expensive production elements, and starring two of the biggest movie stars of all time, seems like hedging your bets for respect.

The movie opens on the ocean, with a young boy in voiceover telling us that we'll soon hear the tale of his time on the road with his father. It's a strange way to begin a dark and grim picture - it seems too comforting. It's a careful way to ensure the audiences of the survival of this young child. It's all a flashback, you see,, so we know that he lives. Others in the film won't be so lucky. The first closeup we see is that of Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing Mrs. Sullivan, whose death will very soon set the plot in motion. She haunts the early scenes, barely uttering a word... she's already a ghost, her death seemingly predetermined from the first rigid frames. But there's something terrifically right and incisive about her every move in the first few scenes. You want to know more about her. She seems to have found a character where there couldn't possibly have been one on the page.

From there the picture jumps into the home of the Sullivan family's financial backer and father figure, John Rooney (a magisterial Paul Newman), who is presiding over a wake. You immediately understand him to be some sort of Brando Godfather-type character. Newman's terrific performance, however, doesn't invite any such direct comparisons - this character is very much his own. But who's this smiling so enigmatically throughout the wake? That's his son Cooper (very well played by the only non-famous actor in sight, Daniel Craig) who scares Sullivan's young boys with his refrain: "It's all so fucking hysterical." That the film begins with a well attended wake calls to mind the opening wedding of The Godfather as well. And indeed, the precise framing and staging seems to be aiming for operatic grandeur in the same stately way that that classic did.

But something about this carefully measured construction of a movie lacks spontaneity. Tales of this sort - of revenge and the search for redemption - require an inner life. And indeed, with each character's introduction the film ups the ante on the promise of a good yarn solidly told. Unfortunately, the characterizations fail to inform the larger picture. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Daniel Craig hypnotize, but they remain frustratingly in the margins. Jude Law, too (and most of all) energizes the picture as he limps into view. The nature of his character is best left to the audience to discover - but there's not enough of him. And then there is Paul Newman, who simply owns the film, but also disappears from view for long stretches. The picture roars to life intermittently during these skilled performances, yet despite its high stakes tale of revenge and killings, the film fails to fully engage. Why?

The answer comes into focus in a scene between Newman and Hanks in the basement of a church. Their relationship, technically employer and employee but obviously closer to beloved father and dutiful son, is the heart of the picture - never mind that the voiceover keeps wanting the picture to be a simpler, less fascinating one. (You know - the one from the beginning about a young son on the road with a father he doesn't really know.) This duet between two stars is nearly a corker. Every vowel coming from the great Paul Newman's craggy voice resonates with determined passion and a deep mnemonic reserve of a compromised life lived. But meanwhile, our protagonist, Tom Hanks, merely stands idly by reciting threatening dialogue.

Though he is unquestionably a movie star, Hanks seems to lack the actorly range that the role of Michael Sullivan requires. Perhaps at a loss for how to play a such a quiet, self-loathing killer, he merely turns down his charisma several notches. Consequently his place in the movie doesn't work as star turn or as character piece. It's a pity that the movie is less than the sum of its parts, because it's too well made to be dismissed outright. It is magnificently shot (courtesy of cinematographic legend Conrad Hall) beautifully designed, costumed, and well edited (Moulin Rouge's Jil Bilcock does the honors). The unfortunate truth is that the gorgeous production asks for but never receives any reckless abandon from Mendes's direction or from Hanks' portrayal.

In one great moment in the aforementioned confrontation, Newman growls "There are only murderers here," and you realize, instantly, how curiously bloodless the rest of the film is. The story, so alive and idiosyncratic in its characterizations and periphery, is all hollow and cautious at the center. The depth of feeling that the film is looking for, and strenously grabbing at, consequently escapes completely. Hanks' fatal miscasting and timid performance unbalances a film that is already too careful to thrill. By the time the voiceover begins again, redundantly reminding us that the film we've just witnessed told the tale of a father and son, the audience may have already mentally exited the theater, anxious to get on with the night.

***

Dover Koshashvili's Late Marriage tells the story of Zaza (or "Dooby," as his girlfriend calls him), the son of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Georgia. Although he is a grown man, everyone treats him like a boy, yet they are angry that he doesn't "grow up." His family is maddened by his indifference to the bridal candidates they present to him. At the age of 31, his bachelor status has gone from embarassment to mini-scandal. Zaza himself, played with appropriate diffidence by Lior Asheknazi, is nonplused at their frustration. He has his own reasons - as we soon discover, his divorcée girlfriend is upset that he won't come clean about their relationship. Eventually, as is always the case, the truth will find a way out into the open. Zaza loves his girlfriend, but he knows that his family won't approve. And how conditional, exactly, is his family's love?

That's the narrative premise in a nutshell - but the film is far more than a soap opera.The opening sequence clues you in to the film's subversive stance. It starts almost sitcom-like with an argument between a long-married couple in the bathroom. She is shampooing his hair, he is annoying her with too many demands. But instead of easy laughs you begin to suspect that there is no "cleansing laugh" (sitcom parlance for mean jokes that never hurt the characters) on its way. Their bond is purely legal, familial, and time bound. The years have all but eroded any life they once had beyond their unhappy union. The humor has bite and sting, indicating the film's abrasive truth-telling intent.

The film's turning point and centerpiece (and not coincidentally the chief American selling point) is its unusually graphic and realistic sex scene between Zaza and his girlfriend Judith (Ronit Elkabetz). What's marvelous about the scene is how it functions as an intuitive part of the narrative. It seems to go on forever. In fact, it's basically the second act of a three act film. But in place of exposition and standard plot developments, you get revelatory sex. (A lovely trade-off that more films should make.) The details of their relationship become clearer and clearer. He loves her far more than he realizes. She knows how much she loves him and is frightened of the implications. They're both aware of how messy their love is, and how impossible it seems to substantiate in any way.

After this terrific sequence, all hell breaks looks with his family. The film, in its own remarkably observational way, gradually transforms from an often brutal comedy into a domestic horror film. Not in this story will we learn about the quiet, longsuffering, lived-in love of family. Koshashvili reveals that family is not only about the ties that bind. These ties also gag and strangle. Family is something like a straitjacket and blood something like poison. The film is deeply troubling in its vision of reality, and also because we're used to family being treated in a far more conventionally positive fashion. In most films a family unit, no matter how violent or dysfunctional it may be, is still in the end revealed as a beautiful thing. Late Marriage is, by contrast, savage, incisive, and altogether daring. Even its elusive conclusion, which is bound to bring on a surprising number of contradictory responses in audiences (just read some reviews to get a sense of this), flies in the face of traditional "family values." This remarkable film is certain to resonate with people who have had a troubled, stifling, or confusing relationship with their families. It's an experience that won't be easy to shake.


©2002 Nathaniel Rogers
CineScene