Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a hardened hit man for the Irish mob, in the Depression-era Road to Perdition, and just to be sure that the offbeat casting registers right away, he wears a mustache, too. Sullivan’s sullenness, his faint air of regret, is so eloquent that after a while, you forget the mustache. This is probably the most reined-in and intricately detailed performance Hanks has ever given. He’s breaking new ground as an actor in a movie that otherwise gussies up old turf.
Sam Mendes, whose directorial debut was the extravagantly overpraised American Beauty, has a knack for converting the mush of melodrama into something doomy and portentous. American Beauty was essentially a male-midlife-crisis comedy with a metaphysical overlay. (In the sixties, it might have starred George Peppard or Jack Lemmon.) But a lot of people were flattered to see their randiness exalted in this way, and the film was an Oscar-winning hit. For his next film, Mendes has chosen material derived from a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but except for the straight-ahead narrative drive, it owes very little, in aesthetic terms, to that form. Its visual style, in the words of its cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall, is “soft noir,” and the emotional textures are freighted with significance. Mendes and his screenwriter, David Self, are attempting what Mendes and American Beauty’s screenwriter, Alan Ball, tried for in that movie: elevating the shopworn into the classic. The ploy doesn’t work as well this time, though, perhaps because Road to Perdition belongs to a genre that has already been thoroughly reworked.
The gangster film has been pulped and perfumed; it’s been socially conscious and flagrantly low-down; it’s been used, in the Godfather movies, to express the corruption of the American Dream. It’s even been Coen-ized in Miller’s Crossing, which in many ways this film resembles, minus the brothers’ high-IQ badinage and razor-cut camera moves. With Road to Perdition, Mendes gives the gangster genre an overweening significance that, for the most part, it can’t support. The pulp shows clearly through the high-art preening: It isn’t prominent enough to be fun, and the art, with few exceptions, isn’t high enough to justify all the moody-blues meaningfulness.
The overarching theme is that old Irish mainstay: fathers and sons. Michael Sullivan, who never had a dad, was raised as a son by his boss, John Rooney, played by Paul Newman. Rooney’s real son, Connor (Daniel Craig), is pathologically envious of Sullivan and rubs out the man’s wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest boy. Sullivan engineers his revenge while on the lam with his only surviving son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), who idolizes his father and was unaware of what he actually did for a living. Their six-week road odyssey, undertaken in the winter of 1931, is meant to be one of those coming-of-age journeys in which father and son, bonded by tragedy, come to terms with who they really are.
This might look good on paper, but Hoechlin’s dullish, inexpressive performance makes for a rather lopsided duet with Hanks. Michael Sullivan has a blighted, stricken look – he seems to have taken the Great Depression literally – and it’s clear that he doesn’t want his son following in his footsteps. And yet the way the movie is set up, there’s never any danger of that: Michael Jr. may be his father’s son, but he never seems tempted by the dark side. If he was, the movie would lose its wholesome patina. The boy’s voice-over spells out the dreary lesson: “Was he a good man?” he asks rhetorically. The answer: “He was my father.”
The real father-son relationship in this movie, the one with far and away the most emotional texture, is between Sullivan and John Rooney. Although the film could use a lot more of him, Paul Newman makes the most of his screen time. When Rooney lets Sullivan know that “sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers,” he’s speaking from the heart. The tragedy that ensues between Rooney and his surrogate son follows from the fact that in their world, blood ties ultimately prevail. Connor may be scum, but he’s still family, and so he must be protected against the man Rooney loves as his own. In the scenes between Hanks and Newman, we get glimpses of greatness. Rooney and Sullivan see themselves unapologetically for who they are – soul mates and killers. When their mutual fate is clear, there’s an almost sensual abandon in the way they give themselves up to it. Hanks and Newman are so finely attuned to each other’s mood that their dialogue seems like an encumbrance. We don’t need words – we have their eyes.
Whenever Mendes has to play out the conventions of the gangster film – Sullivan’s bank robberies, for example, or his scenes with mob boss Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) – the results are unspectacular. Sullivan’s chief nemesis is a crime-scene photographer who doubles as a hit man, played by Jude Law with thinning hair and rotted teeth. He’s a cartoon meanie. Mendes’s real talent is for merging the mythic with the sentimental. In American Beauty, we were meant to weep for the sad sack played by Kevin Spacey and find him soulful. In Road to Perdition – a title that is nothing if not mythic – the sentimentality works its way into the portrayal of Sullivan himself. Powerful as Hanks is in the part, he is still required to play a man who, though a killer, is a rather nice one. He is never shown acting with unjustified malice; he even gives away a fortune to an old childless couple. It is not only Michael Jr. who has not crossed over to the dark side. His father, too, has been spared the crossing. The reason Road to Perdition unrolls so smoothly and finishes so neatly is because Mendes doesn’t give darkness its due. Michael Sullivan is supposed to gain redemption through his son, but long before, the filmmakers have already redeemed him. Perdition has rarely looked so rosy.
The French thriller Read My Lips, written and directed by Jacques Audiard, is about an ex-con (Vincent Cassell) who pulls off a heist with a frumpy, lovelorn secretary (Emmanuelle Devos) who is near-deaf. Her expert lip-reading skills clinch their success. Given such a novel twist, the film should be better than it is, but Devos is especially fine as a woman whose inner solitude carries depth charges.
Road to Perdition
Directed by Sam Mendes; starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, and Tyler Hoechlin.