I thought of American Beauty during every scene. (I've seen American Beauty about 5 times.) The cinematography, set design, and music score provide constant reminders of AB -- constant because they vary only ever so slightly from AB's. I particularly love the family dining room similarities.
The two Mendes films' shared strengths: Almost unbearable elegance, so much attention to vivid detail.
Road To Perdition is a very, very different film from American Beauty in two fascinating ways. First: RTP presents much less dialogue. Most characters have a touch of The Man Who Wasn't There about them. In RTP, the dialogue is elegantly minimalist. Astonishingly little witty repartee for a 1930's Irish gangster flick! (Yes, I'm thinking of Miller's Crossing, the other of the two greatest films in the world.) Second: AB focuses on the transformative powers of change, of self-expanding growth. RTP instead throws the spotlight on basic integrity, on the uses and limits of human moral firmware. AB reveals what happens when a person (Ricky, then Lester) walks his own path. RTP examines possible meanings of staying on the beaten paths, of making obvious choices.
And this is where Ebert got it wrong. A few hours ago, I read his review -- and felt immediate disappointment. He just wasn't receptive to the film. He went in wanting surprise action, wanting to see Shakespearean drama of loudly debated choices. RTP is full of important choices that characters (esp Michael) obviously do make right in front of us. However, they make their choices without fanfare or hesitation. They just act & expect to be understood. (Sometimes almost to the point of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But this is Mendes, and he can do whatever he wants and still keep my attention. As long as he keeps playing that score over those visuals!)
RTP is bigger than watching some characters' important choices, though. (As huge as they are!) RTP challenges us to find real meaning on the beaten paths, to find passions within conventional morality. When we fail to do so, it offers clues to real salvation: Meaning is far more personal than that. Final words: "People sometimes ask me whether there was any good in Michael Sullivan, or was he pure evil as many believe. And I give them the same answer I always do, He was my father."
RTP is a sort of philosophical prequel to AB. If Ebert watches them back to back in that order, he just might get it.
Reviewers keep comparing RTP to The Godfather and such. Those reviewers are obviously on crack. They might as well compare it to Dawson's Creek and E.T.. In many ways, it's startlingly similar to The Man Who Wasn't There, and I wonder who will pick up on that!
In a way, RTP is about redemption through love. And it does a much more credible job with it than The Royal Tenenbaums managed.