Joe Versus the Volcano ran on cable last week. Contained within that misguided, unmemorable film was a small scene that only now resonates. Tom Hanks, who believes he has not 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 30s, 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-40s 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 that 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 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 Michael's 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 Rooney's son Connor (Daniel Craig, brandishing heavy-lidded doom) 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, class and sleaze), they become bank robbers, partners, and, at last, family -- "gun and son," as creator Max Allan Collins once wanted to call them.
This remarkable movie's roots extend in a dozen directions: in the gangster films of the 1930s, in the comic books (it's based upon a 1998 graphic novel written by Collins and richly illustrated in black and white by Richard Piers Rayner), in Kenji Misumi's Lone Wolf and Cub films from the 1970s (father-and-son samurai movies that likewise sprang from Japanese manga, or comics), in the television and big-screen versions of The Untouchables, in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, in yellowing newspaper clips about gangsters infamous and unknown, and certainly in Collins's previous works as crime novelist, comic-book creator, and moviemaker. (He took over the Dick Tracy newspaper strip in 1977, after Chester Gould stepped down.) 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, 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.
It's tempting to celebrate Road to Perdition for being a smart, emotional film released during the season of the stupid and sunburned. It's tempting to embrace it for what it's not rather than for what it is. But this movie would be worth feting in any season. It's wrenching but never manipulative, stoic but never dull, exhausting but never wearying. Road to Perdition strikes a haunting note: Fathers and sons can also become, for better or worse, blood brothers.
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