Director Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, the follow-up to his acerbic debut, American Beauty, has been adapted by Daniel Self from a graphic novel (i.e. ambitious comic book) by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Raynor. This may account for the film’s curious shortcomings.
Visually the film can’t be faulted. Shot by near-legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, it alternates between plush noir and scenic rural landscapes, between merciless city rain and bounteous country sun, functioning both as aesthetic pleasures and fairytale symbolism. The story is interesting, deliberately paced without being dull (there’s so much to look at), and the acting, generally, is good. Even the pushy sentimentality of Thomas Newman’s music (the de rigueur method of telegraphing sensitive moments in big-deal movies — though he does come up with some bracing dissonance for the more intense scenes) doesn’t tip the film over into the maudlin. And yet, something seems to be missing.
Set near Chicago in 1931, the film stars Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, a devoted if somewhat distant family man with a wife and two sons — who also happens to be a hit man for the local branch of the Capone mob. The casting of Hanks here is crucial, since Sullivan, despite his ruthless profession, is meant to be sympathetic, and the actor can draw on a large reserve of audience goodwill just by showing up. Hanks is loyal to his boss, mob chieftain John Rooney (Paul Newman), who treats him like an adopted son while ruing the impulsive behavior of his unreliable real son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Michael keeps his job separate from his family; one night his eldest son, 12-year-old Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), curious about his father’s mysterious job, hides in the back of the car as Michael drives to meet Connor in order to do a little leaning on a recalcitrant mobster.
But the stern talking-to becomes a rubout when Connor, for no apparent reason except his ill temper, machine-guns the poor bastard, under the watchful eyes of a peeping Michael Jr. When Connor realizes that the kid has seen the crime, it gives him the excuse he wanted to turn on the hated rival for his father’s respect. Soon the two Michaels are fugitives, first from the local mob and then from the main branch in Chicago.
The ostensible heart of the matter here is the relationship between Michael and his son. As they set out on a series of bank robberies aimed at wounding the mob financially, the man who wanted to shield his son from his criminal lifestyle finds himself teaching him how to drive a getaway car and, if necessary, use a gun. But Michael remains principled and his son uncorrupted; the filmmakers manage to wrestle an upbeat ending from their last-man-standing scenario.
Although this is all grand entertainment, it’s not nearly as resonant as it could have been (and it’s nowhere near The Godfather league, as the ads have suggested). The characters are full-bodied without being full-blooded, another carryover from the story’s comic-book origins, where dominant facial characteristics signify an otherwise minimally expressed interior life. Michael looks continually pained by a toothache of conscience, while Connor’s sense of defeat has jelled into an evil grin. John Rooney’s calculating eyes are set in a mask of civility; Jude Law, as a psychopathic hit man going after Michael and son, has an evil leer which reveals rotting teeth. You know pretty much all you’re going to know about the characters — and, for the purposes of the movie, pretty much all you need to know — as soon as you meet them.
It’s a pop, postmodern gangster flick, specifically post-Godfather. Where that film’s romanticizing of gangster life was deepened by an accretion of familial details and organizational infighting, Perdition only has to make shorthand gestures to convey its dewy-eyed view of the conflicted murderer. Hanks’ Michael Sullivan becomes heroic as he extracts justice from the evil mob, despite his having spent years doing god-knows-what to people who may or may not have deserved it. We root for him because he’s the only decent grown man in the movie and because he’s Tom Hanks, and because he showed up.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.