*Road to Perdition (R)
Yes, in case you were wondering along with all the tabloid jocks and television entertainment hosts and hostesses, Tom Hanks has sold his soul to the devil, at least fictionally. And much as marketers have tried to soften the blow by assuring potential moviegoers that his character, Michael Sullivan, hit man for mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman), is really a sweet guy, redeemed by his relationship with his son Michael Jr., that's a bunch of malarkey designed to draw hesitant Hanks fans over the theater threshold, into the heart of Hanks' newfound darkness.
Filmmaker/theater director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is far too savvy to weaken Hanks' character by tinkering with redemption. Sullivan, an orphan raised by Mr. Rooney and finely tuned to be his right-hand man, grows up and makes a family in the late 1920s, early 1930s Midwest among gangsters who trade in booze and speakeasies with little to no interference by the cops and plenty of competition. He is flawed, fatally so, by the circumstances of his birth and upbringing, by the time in which he lives, and by his irrevocable actions as an executioner -- and that is what makes Road to Perdition work in the end.
Of course, many other variables enter the mix that makes up this glowering, darkly beautiful nouveau noir gangster film. Foremost are Conrad L. Hall's framing, lighting and cinematography, painting the screen in somber Edward Hopper grays and browns. Rain flows off the rims of mobsters' fedoras like an overflowing gutter after a summer rain, and not a drop is wasted in the effect.
Here's the basic plot: Sullivan leads a seemingly normal life with a wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young sons, Patrick and Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), keeping his work for Mr. Rooney a secret from the kids. Michael Jr. hides out in his car one night, hoping to catch a glimpse into his father's "work" life and accidentally witnesses a hit by Mr. Rooney's hothead son, Connor (Daniel Craig), and his father, putting the whole family in danger. When Connor shows up at the Sullivan house to kill Michael Jr., he shoots Sullivan's wife and younger son instead, setting Michael and Michael Jr. off on a long, bloody trip toward revenge and self-preservation. Recognizing that the situation is impossible to fix, Mr. Rooney reluctantly orders a hit on Michael, employing a creepy little weasel named Maguire, played with nasty delight by Jude Law, disguised with rotting teeth and a bowlegged swagger. Along the way we meet Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), Al Capone's right-hand man in Chicago; witness an avalanche of killings, most tastefully conducted off-screen; and soak in the scenery.
Mendes is a master at setting a dramatic scene, artfully orchestrating the nervous pauses before the bullets begin to fly. A face-off between Sullivan and Maguire in a roadside diner is ridden with tension, as are the final scenes in the film. The final shootout in a sun-bleached, sparely furnished room with light wood floors, in broad daylight against the backdrop of an achingly blue sky, lingers in memory with its painful visual irony.
Road to Perdition is strongly acted by everyone, especially Hanks and Newman. Hanks' Sullivan is deeply conflicted and the actor effectively conveys all that his character has lost, both while his family was still alive and after they are killed. Newman, at 77, is still more elegant and fluid than the majority of screen actors, and plays Rooney with a keen mix of charm, anguish and simmering furor. Law, too, makes the screen crackle every time he makes an appearance.
This is not a neatly wrapped up father-and-son/growing-up tale but a highly stylized gangster film that explores the dark fate of those men and the time it re-creates. The most successfully explored emotional theme is the painful distance between trusting sons and their alienated fathers. The impact is quiet and somewhat confounding, but the dark beauty created by the messengers sticks with the viewers long after the film has ended.
-- Kathryn Eastburn