Just a few minutes into this Depression-era crime drama with the fancy-pants title of Road to Perdition, my heart sank. It seemed dour, draggy, in love with its own somber look. Worse, it began with narration, a lazy device. A motherless twelve-year-old boy, Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), stands by a lake, telling us about his father and the bloody road trip that brought them to Perdition — a real town in Illinois and also a metaphor for hell. Ain’t that literary? And get this: Michael Sr., a hit man for the Irish mob in Chicago, is played by Tom Hanks with a thin mustache and the fixed stare of a beloved star out to slime his tidy image. Know what? As the plot began to unroll in flashback, my resistance evaporated. Road to Perdition has the juice to get its hooks into you, knock you off balance and keep you that way for two hours. It’s a triumph for director Sam Mendes, 32, the Brit theater wiz who hit the Oscar jackpot first time out with 1999’s American Beauty. The passion and precision of his Road work is staggering.
Mendes and screenwriter David Self (Thirteen Days) have taken the film’s source material — a graphic novel by Max Allen Collins with illustrations by Richard Piers Rayner — and added their own vivid brush strokes to reveal something elemental about fathers and sons and the bloodlust that seems hard-wired into the American character. Because of the mob angle, Road will suffer comparisons to The Godfather, GoodFellas and The Sopranos. But the film is closer in spirit to the spare complexity of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a western that is almost Greek in its mythic sense of fate and fury.
Hanks is quietly devastating as the emotionally closed-off Sullivan, playing this enforcer in a suit, tie and starched shirt like a gathering storm. We sense his devotion to John Rooney (Paul Newman), the mob kingpin who took him in and treated him like a son. “So who has a hug for a lonely old man?” asks Rooney, wrapping a familial arm around Sullivan, his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their two sons, Michael Jr. and Peter (Liam Aiken). We can’t help noticing Rooney’s flashing blue eyes, able to switch in a snap from warmth to ice. It’s a thrill to watch Newman, 77, rip into his role. The man is a dynamo, whether Rooney is ordering a hit or playing a piano duet with Sullivan. Hanks and Newman act together with the confidence of titans, their talents in the service of character, never star ego. They are indisputably great, especially when Sullivan and Rooney turn against one another.
Without revealing the many twists in this Road, the story surges on a revenge tragedy sparked by Rooney’s blood son Connor (a shockingly good turn from British actor Daniel Craig). Connor strongly resents his father for the affection he shows Sullivan. When Michael Jr. — hiding in a car trunk — catches his father and Connor gunning down a man, it’s Connor who plants the seed on how to silence Michael Jr. and the Sullivan family. Sullivan and son are suddenly on the run to Chicago, futilely seeking aid from Al Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) and then dodging the assassin Maguire (Jude Law), who doubles as a crime photographer. Maguire likes clicking the shutter just as a victim dies. In a film loaded with Oscar-worthy performances, Law — deglammed with thinning hair, sallow skin and rotting teeth — electrifies as perversity incarnate. Filmed in a harsh winter of rain, snow and chilling darkness, Road will be long remembered for the artistry of cinematographer Conrad Hall. There are breathtaking scenes of shootouts and bank robberies, complimented by Thomas Newman’s evocative score. But it’s on the personal level that Road cuts deepest. “We are all murderers in this room,” says Rooney to Sullivan. Even the last words we hear — “He was my father” — evoke feelings too complicated for tears. Like all films that count for something, this stunner gets under your skin. Put Road on the short list for Best Movie of 2002.