Paul Newman and Tom Hanks star in Sam Mendes's "Road to Perdition."
Perhaps because it constitutes just about the only adult movie (in the old sense of the term) of the summer so far, Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition has provoked almost as many raves as his previous hit, the wildly overpraised American Beauty. Mendes shares with Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, just the sort of mannered pretension and hollow profundity that many reviewers mistake for art, which therefore pretty much guarantees his critical success.
Although this film represents a considerable departure in subject, style, and tone from American Beauty, it labors under a similar burden of Deep Thoughts and Big Ideas and thus provokes an inordinate amount of heavy breathing in the media.
A cluster of incongruities surrounds the picture, including its basis in a graphic novel, its unusual casting, and its reliance on quite another formula from the ones that propelled American Beauty. Instead of repeating or extending his cinematic elaboration of something like a John Cheever short story of bourgeois angst and suburban infidelity, the new movie, commendably, represents yet another example of that honored and venerable form, the gangster film, a significant genre in this country.
This time around, further, the director hits upon the brilliant notion of employing a live narrator (as opposed to the deceased Kevin Spacey character of his last flick). That narrator, a young boy named Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Taylor Hoechlin), tells the story of a terrible period in his childhood back in 1931, when he experienced a violent and tragic initiation into such adult realities as suffering, sorrow, and loss.
The boy's father, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) lives with his two sons, young Michael and his little brother Peter, and his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a comfortable house, drives a good car, and supports his family on his earnings as a hit man for a prosperous gangster named John Rooney (Paul Newman). The boy learns the truth of his father's profession when he hides in his car and spies on a bloody confrontation in which the boss's son, Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), kills another member of the gang. Connor, the sort of necessary psychopath who appears in most gangster movies, fears that young Michael will squeal, so he naturally decides to kill him and the whole Sullivan family, a plan at which he only partially succeeds.
Once the movie establishes that situation and its attendant dangers, it settles into its real plot, the slow progress of the two Michael Sullivans on a long, dangerous journey of vengeance and, paradoxically, understanding. The father must protect his son from the Rooneys, while at the same time working out a way to revenge himself upon them; because John Rooney, who has himself been a kind of father to Michael and grandfather to his children, must defend his own flesh and blood, the conflict intensifies the complications of that conventional gangster flick theme, familial loyalty. Through the course of their travels, young Michael learns the depth of his father's love for him and something of the code he lives by.
Along with those traditional themes of blood ties, loyalty, betrayal, and revenge, the movie reflects its form's concern with an implacable fate. As John Rooney tells Michael Sullivan in a final encounter, once they choose their way in life, nothing can change, and nothing is sure except that none of them will go to Heaven. The film's title, Road to Perdition, describes both Michael's efforts to bring his son to safety in a town of that name and also, of course, the ineluctable direction his life must take, an end he cannot escape.
One of the greatest single problems in this decidedly mixed bag of a picture results from the odd and, frankly, misguided casting of Tom Hanks. Pale, pudgy, and utterly passive, with a permanent stubble and a pathetic little failure of a mustache, he makes a most unlikely gangster --- there seems no threat, no menace, no danger, no violence in this sad, lumpish, worried little man. As in his awful work in the awful Philadelphia or the even worse Green Mile, Hanks once again shows that his great strength really lies in comic or light romantic parts --- A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Joe Versus the Volcano, etc. --- in which he sparkles with wit and fun. Despite the score of corpses he leaves in his wake, this man is no killer.
Unfortunately, Hanks also must appear in several scenes with Paul Newman, who simply acts him right off the screen. With his careful choice of words, his thoughtful composure, his air of sad and specious regret, his Irish charm, he makes us actually like John Rooney, a very bad man but also a most sympathetic figure. Stanley Tucci plays the famous gangster Frank Nitti with an understated and faintly ironic exactness and Jude Law, of all people, appears as a newspaper photographer specializing in corpses who moonlights as a hired killer (or maybe it's the other way around).
Despite the potential fascination of its subjects and themes, much of the film moves so slowly that its road seems very long indeed. Although it employs many of the conventions of its genre --- the Catholic iconography, the neo-Cubist emphasis on the squared-off silhouettes of men in hats and suits and long overcoats, the machinery of telephones, rectangular automobiles, and Tommy guns --- it lacks the pace, pulse, and efficiency of the1930s flicks it copies.
Although of course filmed in color, in both interiors and exteriors Road to Perdition certainly looks as dark as any of those old black-and-white flicks, and in this interpretation of a famous Dust Bowl year, it pours down rain almost all the time. The circuitous and dangerous Road to Perdition turns out after all to be long, dark, and wet.
Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stanley Tucci, Dylan Baker, Liam Aiken, Ciaràn Hinds, Dough Sinuzza, Kevin Chamberlin; based upon the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins; screenplay by David Self; directed by Sam Mendes.