Joe Versus the Volcano ran on cable last week, and contained within that misguided, unmemorable film was a small scene that only now resonates. Tom Hanks, who believes he hasn't long to live, emerges from a doctor's office wearing a fedora too small for his head and a trench coat that hangs off his rail-thin body as though it were dangling from a skeleton. Hanks, then in his early thirties, still looked like a child, and his clothes looked as though they'd been pilfered from his father's closet; they were too big, almost cartoonishly so. Twelve years on, he sports the same wardrobe throughout much of Road to Perdition, only now those clothes fit. So does the man inside them, an actor in his mid-forties who suddenly seems much older beneath beard stubble and added weight, beneath a layer of grime and guilt. Now, he has gravity, so much so his body appears to sag.
In Road to Perdition, Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, the loyal lieutenant to 1930s Midwest mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman, eerily immortal). Michael kills without question; he fires his gun without so much as a grin or a grimace. Murdering other gangsters is just his job, his way of keeping his family clothed, fed, and housed in austere opulence. His two boys, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken), want to romanticize his duties -- they like to say he goes "on missions" for Mr. Rooney -- but Michael and his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) won't let them; there's nothing romantic about being a gun for hire, a whore with a pistol. One can see the toll such an existence has taken on Michael. Hanks, mute for much of the film's first third, looks like something of a ghost himself -- pale, dead in the eyes, a hole in his soul.
It's only when confronted with the consequences of his actions that he springs to life. That happens when Michael Jr. sneaks into his dad's car and watches his father and Mr. Rooney's son Connor gun down a man they once called a friend. Connor would like to off the kid, vanishing any witness, but Michael vows he won't talk. "He's my son," he offers, as though it's good enough. It isn't, and Connor sets in motion a sequence of events that forces Michael and son to hit the road (to, yes, perdition -- a literal refuge and metaphoric inevitability), where they seek vengeance and a warm place to sleep. Turned out by Al Capone's right-hand man, Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), they become bank robbers, partners, and finally, family.
This remarkable movie's roots extend in a dozen different directions: to the gangster films of the 1930s, to comic books (it's based upon a 1998 graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins), to Kenji Misumi's father-and-son samurai movies that likewise sprang from Japanese manga, or comics, to The Untouchables and Bonnie and Clyde, to yellowing newspaper clips about gangsters infamous and unknown, and certainly to Collins' previous works as crime novelist, comic-book creator, and moviemaker. Road to Perdition acts almost as a counterpart to The Godfather, in that it suggests a gangster's son doesn't always have to inherit his old man's bloody legacy; what ruined Michael Corleone saves Michael Sullivan Jr.
The film, directed by Sam Mendes and written by David Self, does nothing to hide its origins. In his introduction to the DC Comics-published Road to Perdition, Collins even lays out the map, provides the compass, and carefully guides the curious through the genesis of the project. As far as he's concerned, Collins' story is about how a boy loses his innocence when he realizes his father is also a killer without conscience. The comic book is a violent read. Mendes and Self's version is more elegiac, more poetic -- a lush painting forged from sketches.
The movie looks magnificent. Mendes, who squeezed the last bit of symbolism out of suburbia's trappings in American Beauty, lets the visuals fill in the details without becoming them. As the film moves forward, like a Model A with a Mustang engine, the white of Midwestern snow gives way to the gleaming spires of Chicago and the dusty roads and rain-drenched streets of nowhere in particular. The farther the Sullivans move from home, the less hospitable the land becomes, and cinematographer Conrad Hall makes the flat screen's images feel three-dimensional. Yet the people become almost friendlier, especially an elderly couple who take in the Sullivans. In a film about the wounds that families inflict upon each other, these poor farmers are the closest thing to kin; they ask for nothing, and in return get everything they ever wanted.
Mendes and Self have made but slight alterations to the novel. During a nasty shootout with Nitti's accountant and others, Collins' son originally shot and killed an assassin, further burdening his father with guilt. The filmmaker never puts little Michael in such a position; he's to be kept pure, untarnished by his old man's dirty work till the end. Hoechlin, whose narration at the beginning hints at what's to come, plays the lad perfectly as an innocent beyond reproach, as someone forced into action only when it's inevitable and when it's too late.
It's tempting to celebrate Road to Perdition for what it's not, rather than for what it is. It is wrenching yet not manipulative, stoic though not dull, exhausting but not wearying. It also strikes a haunting note: Fathers and sons can become, for better or worse, blood brothers.
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