Road to Perdition
Can nice guy Tom Hanks play a vengeful, murderous mobster in Road to Perdition?
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by David Self based on the graphic novel of the same name
Starring Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman
When I see Tom Hanks’ basketball head, I imagine cutting it open to reveal a cross-section
of flesh and bone that resembles the inside of a tree. I imagine 46 growth rings,
some thick, some thin, depending on how much he gorged himself that year. The
layer when he filmed Castaway, for instance, is wispy and thin – all that
dieting for the role. (Though I’m not entirely convinced that his much-ballyhooed
weight loss wasn’t digital trickery, so I’d examine that year very closely.) The
outermost rings are as wide as your pinkie and slick with grease.
Hanks is getting fat, more figuratively than literally, but still – fat. Lazy.
His performance as hit man Mike Sullivan in Road to Perdition is not a
drastic departure for the Second Coming of Jimmy Stewart; it’s actually a predictable
progression. So what if he kills men in cold blood? This is a “dark role” in the
same way Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon was perfect for publicists and Premiere
blurbs, yet challenged neither the actor nor the audience. Hanks in a period piece
with a machine gun does not a “dark role” make.
Sam Mendes became a household name after directing the Academy Award-winning American
Beauty, a movie best viewed as a self-conscious caricaturization of suburban
life. It’s a bit of a comic book in its intentional superficiality. This follow-up
is overtly and more acceptably comic-bookish; it’s based on the 1998 graphic novel
by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.
1931. Prohibition. Tommy guns and model-Ts. Sharp suits and lots of dramatic shadows.
More Irishman than Chateau on a Friday night. Mike Sullivan is the classic orphan
character, a kept man of sorts. Years earlier, he was taken in by mobster John
Rooney (Paul Newman), and given a life and livelihood. In return, he acts as Rooney’s
heavy. Sullivan collects on debts, enforces punishment ... that sort of thing.
Rooney’s biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig), is the classic fuck-up. He’s short-sighted,
hot-headed and forever standing in the shadow of his informally adopted step-brother.
After Sullivan’s elder son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), witnesses a murder,
Sullivan’s wife and other son are killed by the younger Rooney. Father and remaining
son then go on the run together. Attempts to reconcile with the elder Rooney fail,
due to Sullivan’s refusal to accept the murders without exacting revenge. For
six weeks, they crisscross Illinois, engage in some interesting bank robberies
and, well, get to know each other.
Mendes remembers the intimidating power of his father. Dad was a large creature,
a mysterious beast who left in the morning and came home at night, demanded a
yes-sir brand of politeness and showed little or no emotion in front of the children.
Dad’s personal items – even the most mundane pocket detritus, such as keys or
a billfold – were mysterious and charged with threat. Road to Perdition
captures that feeling, uses it as the springboard and carries it through what’s
ultimately a decent father-son/buddy/gangster/road movie.
Decent until the very last minute, that is. In the last moment before the credits
roll, Mendes almost ruins everything. Everything has just wrapped up in good fashion,
just as you’d expect – no loose ends, no major surprises, no terrible regrets.
But then the sophomore director hands the mic to young Michael Sullivan. In a
mawkish closing voice-over (that bookends his opening mawkish voiceover), Michael
Jr. proceeds to beat the audience over the head with an explanation of the moral
It’s enough to make you stand up and scream at the screen, “Yeah, we get
it. Mike Sullivan didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. Yeah, we get
it. Mike Sullivan was a good but conflicted man. Yeah, thanks, got it. Right.
Now, please let the credits roll.”
But what else is to be expected from a Tom Hanks movie? If, 20 years ago, Ridley
Scott couldn’t win his fight to keep the voiceover out of Bladerunner,
what chance does the Spielberg-bound Mendes have? Let it slide. Better yet, leave
the theater as soon as you sense that the movie is over, which is actually two
minutes before the last scene.
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