Joe Versus the Volcano ran on cable last week, and 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 different directions: in the gangster films of the 1930s, in 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 '70s (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' 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, does nothing to hide its origins. Collins, in his introduction to the DC Comics-published Road to Perdition, even lays out the map, provides the compass and carefully guides the curious through the genesis of the project. As far as he's concerned, the book and now its film companion are meant to be viewed as the culmination of a lifelong obsession with stories about outright good and evil and those innocents caught in the gunfire. Collins' story, like those with which he's obsessed, is about "the juxtaposition of tough and tender, of brutality and sensitivity" about, specifically, how a boy loses his innocence when he realizes his father is a killer without conscience. Collins and Rayner's comic book is a violent read, its story buried beneath the rat-a-tat-tat of tommy guns and the spilling of so much blood that pages would drip red were they in color. Mendes and Self's version is more elegiac, more poetic a lush painting forged from sketches.
The movie 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. The farther the Sullivans move from home, the less hospitable the land becomes. (You could choke on the grit; cinematographer Conrad Hall makes the flat screen's images feel three-dimensional.) Yet the people become almost friendlier, especially an elderly couple who take the Sullivans in. In a film about the wounds that families real and surrogate inflict upon each other, these poor farmers are the closest thing to kin. They ask for nothing and, in return, get everything they ever wanted.
Mendes and Self have made but slight alterations to the novel. During a nasty shoot-out with Nitti's accountant and others, Collins' little boy originally shot and killed an assassin, further burdening his father with guilt. The filmmaker never put little Michael in such a position; he's to be kept pure, untarnished by his old man's dirty work 'til the end. Hoechlin, whose narration at the beginning hints at what's to come, plays the lad perfectly as an innocent beyond reproach, as someone forced into action only when it's inevitable and when it's too late. Self also added a vile assassin not found in the book: Maguire (Jude Law), a crime photographer who shoots his subjects well before he loads the film. Law, his whole body reeking of rot, is Michael without the guilt or the rationale a man who kills for thrills.
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 become, for better or worse, blood brothers.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.