Castaway in Mob land
Sam Mendes’ highly stylized Road to Perdition fails to find sympathy for its mobster protagonist
One difference between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, as actors, is that the former is credible as a tragic, morally compromised character and the latter is not. And, in Road to Perdition, that has a lot to do with what is dramatically persuasive and what is not.
Both Newman and Hanks do some good acting in Sam Mendes’ vaunted period-piece gangster film. But for all of its noteworthy qualities, this brooding entertainment is sentimental and dishonest at some crucial points. Hanks’ presence in the leading role is part of the problem, a central facet in the flaws of the film’s overall design.
Hanks plays Mike Sullivan, a machine-gun-wielding killer whose loyalty to the gangster chieftain John Rooney (Newman) has resulted in a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and their two young sons. Sullivan is the film’s shadowy protagonist but a deeply compromised one, as becomes painfully and complexly clear when his older son Michael gets a first-hand glimpse of what his father’s well-paid job really is (the setting is 1931 and the Great Depression, but Sullivan and Rooney are figures out of the high-roller gangsterism of Al Capone and the 1920s).
The discovery that young Michael has witnessed a gangland execution—in which his father is a reluctant but deadly participant—leads to a lethal chain of reprisals and countermoves. The dramatic stakes are upped to tragic intensity, particularly in an array of twisted father-son relationships—not just Michael and Sullivan, but also Rooney with both Sullivan (an adopted son of sorts) and his actual son Connor, a treacherously ambitious usurper whose Machiavellian violence pushes the Rooney-Sullivan relationship to its limits, and beyond.
The impulse to tragedy in all this is strongest in Newman’s Rooney, a man whose avuncular warmth is as menacing as his cold-blooded efficiency is paternally righteous. But the Hanks/Sullivan part of the story is a half-baked study in redemption and revenge, in which the relief over young Michael’s lack of homicidal inclinations seems less the point than Sullivan’s stature as professional killer whose crimes are marginalized by his earnestness as a father and breadwinner.
Newman’s rueful fatalism suits the story well, but not even the brilliantly gloomy cinematography of veteran Conrad Hall can conceal the basically sunny disposition of Tom Hanks. The characterization might have been more convincing and effective had Sullivan been portrayed as an essentially faceless shadow—all the more so since the main story is framed by young Michael’s oddly evasive voiceover narration.
Mendes’ stylized direction of all this has been much admired in the early reviews, but the overall effects are weirdly erratic. For all of its offbeat angles of vision on gangster-movie violence, etc., the film seems to use its stylishness above all for softening the nastiest and most difficult truths of the tale. It’s only with Jude Law’s Maguire, an assassin who poses as a photographer of death scenes, that Mendes’ stylistic flourishes take on the hellish lunacy that the story seems to require.
There is much in Road to Perdition that will remind some viewers of such illustrious predecessors as Chinatown and Miller’s Crossing, but Mendes and company suffer by comparison with both. Ironically, Mendes’ chief stylistic influence might be Bernardo Bertolucci, whose The Conformist (1970) is a much more fully realized vision of how the desire for goodness and normalcy might become entangled in treachery and murder.