Clean Getaway

Who's the boss? Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in 'Road to Perdition'
DreamWorks Pictures

I'm imagining a summer road movie, sort of a Hope/Crosby update by way of Road Trip, starring Adam Sandler and Tom Hanks as a couple of successful scam artists. First Sandler's Lil' Deeds batters their prey with crass triviality; then Hanks's Furrowed Forrest, spouting moralistic truisms, convinces the stupefied stooge to donate to his League of Meaningful Gestures. The duo attempts to go straight (to wacky effect!) in order to woo lounge singer and professional widow Ms. Court née Love (played by Meg Ryan), but she slaps a lawsuit on them, claiming ownership of their con game. Call it Road to Riches.

Kidding aside, I would pay to see Hanks in a full-on humorous role. The most decorated American of our time (saving a very private Reagan) keeps picking parts that scream "Oscar! Oscar!" as if his only goal was to be the first man to stand at the podium three times. I wouldn't complain if his recent serious roles were serious--as in complex, risky, surprising--rather than serious™. On the other hand, maybe the characters were risky on paper, and Hanks just left them three-hankied and soggy. At least that's what he does with the starring role of a hit man in Sam Mendes's Depression-era gangster film Road to Perdition.

Which is a shame. Because Mendes's followup to the Oscar™-winning American Beauty (speaking of soggy) could have been a rich meal in a year of fast-food movies. It is gorgeously shot (by Conrad L. Hall of the dancing plastic bag), sharply edited (by Jill Bilcock, slowing down from Moulin Rouge), and intriguingly self-reflective. The other actors--Paul Newman, Jude Law, newcomer Tyler Hoechlin--fill out their roles with such flavor and intelligence that I could feel myself falling into their eyes. I'm ready to hand out statuettes to all of them--except for that bland spot at the center, which effectively ensures that the pieces of the film remain just that.

In what is known as "playing against type" (a tried-and-true Oscar™ gambit), Hanks is Michael Sullivan, the strong arm of Irish crime boss John Rooney (Newman) in a town near Chicago circa 1931. Rooney fed and clothed Sullivan when he was just another poor mick, and Sullivan has repaid him with a son's loyalty and affection--which Rooney returns. Mendes, with a rather heavy hand, shows Rooney's real son Connor (Daniel Craig) festering with jealous ambition. (Written by David Self, from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, the movie telegraphs its moves like an eager base runner.) It is Connor who destroys the middle-class idyll that Sullivan has established with his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and children. But we are given to understand that Sullivan has brought the horror on himself through his secret violence.

Unfortunately, Hanks's idea of playing "hard" is to freeze his facial muscles. He pinches his comfortable voice but doesn't give it any spice. Sullivan may be a good man tightly repressed by circumstance, but a good actor will portray repression as an expression--not as blankness. (See Russell Crowe, who has found numerous ways to enact constraint.) Mendes and Hall resort to trickery to harsh Hanks up, working mostly with shadows: his machine gun flashing like a strobe, his hat obscuring half his face--which actually highlights the soft weakness of his lower lip. The guy just can't be made scary.

Hanks finally finds familiar ground when Sullivan is victimized. The actor has made millions playing vulnerable and charming, and he slides back into that space like an oiled duck. As he and his oldest, Michael Jr. (Hoechlin), flee their would-be assassins, what was a dark, complicated story turns for a time into Turner and Hooch. Hanks reveals his sparkle slowly, seducing the fierce-eyed Hoechlin as they blow through a series of whimsical adventures involving bank robbery.

Sullivan's bad reputation is further lightened by comparison to the Mob-assigned killer Maguire. Pretty Jude Law is eerily remade with hunched walk, thinning hair, and an obsession with photographing dead bodies. Hanks stands up to him in one quietly tense scene, but otherwise Law and Newman so out-act the star that I actually felt bad for Hanks. Newman once said that he was looking for a great role to retire on, and this is certainly a strong candidate: His Rooney is by turns expansive, warm, weak, and chilling, but always of a piece, and that faint Irish accent makes me weep for the craft of it. Especially as Sullivan begins acting badly again--pun intended. (I can hardly continue feeling sorry for someone who is indeed the "hit" man of an established Hollywood mob: Spielberg buddy, AFI Life Achievement Awardee at age 45, not to mention big brother in this brotherhood of cast and crew.)

As the filmmakers often point out, Road to Perdition is about fathers and sons, and so it concerns generations. Will the sins of the father be visited upon the son? Hanks has always played men with enough power to let themselves appear weak: the prototypical middle- to upper-class male boomer. His characters have done a fine job of obscuring their privilege, always seeming to be giving it all away. The mind struggles to accept him as someone a generation before empowerment, committing violence to grant his offspring the privilege of distance from violence.

And that's where this cunningly crafted movie really fails to jell. Because Mendes, via Maguire's gruesome hobby, has been unwinding an unnerving critique: Who is, after all, taking pictures of dead bodies? And who is pleasuring in these deaths? The film's strongest image is of a camera tripod in front of a white screen marked by blood. Those of us with the money to distance ourselves from the clawing and scratching of base survival will put up cash to see it performed before us. We are fascinated with the meanness of it, with the spatter of wasted life. Why? I don't know. Because it reminds us to feel grateful? Because it makes palatable entertainment of what goes on far enough away that we can deny our involvement in it? Mendes would implicate the audience in his protagonist's violence (as he refused to do in American Beauty). But Hanks can't convince us of his character's brutality. Or he won't.

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