Composer Thomas Newman and director Sam Mendes have formed, over the space of a decade, one of the most significant partnerships in recent cinematic memory. Their most iconic of course came for their most successful film, American Beauty, with Newman's incisive, witty score perfectly in-tune with Mendes' examination of suburban angst. Jarhead and Revolutionary Road are more minimalist efforts but it was their second outing, Road to Perdition, which sees Newman at his most conventional (if, indeed that word can be used in conjunction with the composer). Newman has formulated the most unique sound of any film composer lately (along with Elliot Goldenthal), with his lushly ethereal orchestra frequently giving way to bizarre acoustic and ethnic textures. It's the perfect fit for Mendes’ moody and haunting take on the standard gangster tale, one about a mob hit man (Tom Hanks) who must flee with his son after he witnesses an execution. It doesn't have the gravitas of American Beauty but visually, it's breathtaking, and there are strong supporting performances from Paul Newman and Jude Law.
The composer isn't one to labour the obvious too much and so the early stretches are the only ones to feature carefully interlaced pipe arrangements indicating the characters' Irish background. "Rock Island, 1931" and "Wake" are especially beautiful in this regard. Once this is done, he can settle down to his more distinctive way of scoring. There is the usual, intricately layered wash of acoustic and electronic sounds, chimes, bowls and triangles, mixed with strings and winds so fragile one holds their breath in the hope they will continue. This being a gangster tale, Newman doesn't shy away from the gloomier strings in "Bit Borrowers" and "Murder in Four Parts"; it's a soundscape so perfectly in-tune with Mendes' rain-swept streets of purgation, the film can't be imagined without it.
However, it's the more conventionally melodic parts that make the biggest impression, emerging from the dissonance to wash over the listener like the tide on a beach. "Road to Chicago" is one of the most notable, a delicate piano figure rising up to encompass the whole orchestra in marvellous counterpoint to the stunning visuals of the recreated city. "Reading Room" which follows is quietly devastating, highlighting Newman's ability to wring real emotion from minimalism.
The delightfully quirky "Meet Maguire" showcases the brilliant strain of wit in the composer's work, a bizarre mass of plucked strings under squeaky woodwinds; it's a sinister and beguiling piece for Jude Law's revolting villain. There are several pieces cut from the same cloth in the score, venturing close to action material but never quite getting there – "Nothing to Trade" and the charming "Dirty Money" (where Hanks and his son become amateur bank robbers) are wonderfully jaunty examples.
"Fin McGovern" (underscoring the murder scene catalyst near the start) restores the violent, disturbing sound of criminal life before the score's most gorgeous theme crops up for the first time in "The Farm", an immensely soothing, pastoral piece carried by piano and strings. Truly, there is no-one better at scoring calming, healing beauty than Newman at the moment; the track is him at his best. The haunting "Rain Hammers" is brilliantly evocative of its title, chimes and plucked instruments generating a pitter-patter of music.
The following "Virgin Mary" takes the "Road to Chicago" theme and embellishes it with a greater sense of melancholy through the woodwind; its flipside is the thrilling "Shoot the Dead", the most conventionally exciting piece on the soundtrack. Of course, the excitement doesn’t last long, with a sense of despondency setting in before the track is over. This informs the climactic portion of the score as Hanks settles his scores with his enemies: rather than finish it as a blood and thunder epic, the sense of sadness is increased from "Grave Drive" through to "Cathedral" (introducing a boy's choir for the first and only time) and the eerie "Ghosts", underscoring the showdown between Hanks and Paul Newman in the rain (a stunning mix of image and music).
There's one more moment of unnerving musical violence to overcome in "Lexington Hotel, Room 1432" before the promise of redemption in the stunningly beautiful finale, "Road to Perdition", which takes the "Farm" theme soaring to grand orchestral heights during the film's moving conclusion. There is really no-one better at wringing the big emotional climax out of a score than Newman at the moment, but the key is how carefully he's led us to this moment; his steady build-up therefore pays off in spades. One more surprise is sprung on us afterwards with a tentative piano duet entitled "Perdition" played by Hanks and Newman themselves; it's as if the characters are trying to grasp the elusive happiness denied them due to their violent lifestyles, a poignant, reflective end.
What is most apparent about the score is how well meshed it is with the themes Mendes establishes in the film, an almost anti-gangster piece consumed with notions of faith, heaven, hell and father-son relationships. However, the genius of Newman is how successfully his own voice is conveyed outside the primary context of the movie, becoming a haunted, introverted tone poem in its own right. Although not for everyone, his rich, incredibly detailed orchestrations mark some of the most impressive film music around.