Road to Perdition
Fathers and sons. Sin and redemption. Crime and punishment. Hanks and Newman.
The big issues — as well as the big stars — are huge in Road to Perdition. Greek tragedy huge. ”Godfather” gigantic. Scaled to be visible to bestowers of movie awards even six months hence. Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a brooding Catholic hitman who comes home from work to his aproned wife and two young sons in their middle-class home outside of Chicago as weighted down with masculine mournfulness as Willy Loman after a road trip. Sullivan works for John Rooney (Paul Newman), a Mob boss who loves Sullivan like the son he wishes he had; Connor (British theater regular Daniel Craig), the son Rooney does have, is a weakling, a hotheaded crybaby as reckless with entitlement as Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in ”Gladiator.”
Sullivan accompanies Connor on a mission that goes bad when Connor, in a rage of impatience, kills a man he’s meant to assuage, and Sullivan backs the boss’ kid like the loyal soldier he is. Tragically, inevitably, and pulpily (the story is based on a graphic novel written by longtime ”Dick Tracy” strip writer Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner), Sullivan’s older, 12-year-old boy, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) has sneaked along for the ride, sees the killing, and sees that Connor sees him. The resulting tragedy of retaliation, escalated by John Rooney’s tormented loyalty to his blood son, sends both Michaels on the road, partly to escape, partly to avenge, but mostly, in the way of American secular movie Bible stories, to atone. Father and son are thus brought closer to heaven by the father’s damnation and the son’s prayers for closeness with the old man.
”Perdition” means hell, true. But it’s also — in the way of Americans with a dry sense of humor — the name of the corn-fed Midwest town the Sullivans head for. And for all the darkness (and rain, lots of rain) called forth to convey the agonies of a man who, like most men, is soaked with moral conflict, British director Sam Mendes and screenwriter David Self (”Thirteen Days”) promise that the sky will turn blue if only fathers can break the cycle of visiting sins on the heads of their boys. Weep for the Sullivans in this sumptuous and predigested, top-quality and overdetermined, serious and easy-reader movie, Mendes encourages, but do not despair for them because — as in Mendes’ manufactured crowd-pleaser, ”American Beauty” — it’s always darkest just before the catharsis. And catharsis, sweetened with Thomas Newman’s soundtrack that echoes the plinks and tinkles of his ”Six Feet Under,” is guaranteed.
Certainly Hanks and Newman are radiant with the blessings of unstoppered talent, two greats from two generations who each understand the power of underplaying and sharing the treasures of Conrad L. Hall’s exquisite cinematography. Hanks — fleshed out, stolid, with a sad mustache — gets to fire a gun not because he’s a great soldier but because he’s a murderer, and he brings to a morally compromised character the same intelligence he lavishes on more heroic roles. (He also works generously with Hoechlin, loosening the novice actor’s forgivable knots.) Meanwhile Newman — sunk in, flinty, with angry spectacles — gets to order a hit, and play every one of his 77 years, quavers, rasps, and all. The bad-guy stuff does the pair good, and when Rooney and Sullivan beam at each other quietly, bonded by pure love and crooked killing, the two performers are so pleasing to watch, you want to nudge a neighbor and nod approvingly; in a pretty, flourishy scene where Sullivan and Rooney wordlessly play a piano duet, the appropriate response is, ”Ooooh, Hanks and Newman!”
For good measure, the duo are joined by a crucial third model of evil, this one a conscienceless crime photographer called Maguire, played by Jude Law with a bent spine and stained teeth. While the lead gangsters at least wrestle with right and wrong, the man from the media has no such compunction; he’ll kill to get the picture if need be, and still have no problem sleeping at night. (In the future he might be an android gigolo.)
Following ”Minority Report” as it does, ”Road to Perdition” suggests that this is a prestige-studio-movie summer of fathers reaching out to sons, sons forgiving fathers, and mothers pretty much vanishing from the picture after dinner is served. There’s much that’s simplistically touching, optimistic, and appealing in the filial trend, just as there’s much that’s simplistically grand, worthy, and fine in ”Perdition.” If I yearn for less measured filmmaking that cries out with more reckless despair, it’s because I think hell on earth is a meaner, much more interesting, and far less tidy cinematic place than Mendes trusts his audience to handle. When all the (movie) stars in heaven are aligned, why settle for the road to heck?