Hanks Fought the Law
"Road to Perdition" is essentially a simple story, a movie about a father forced to seek revenge and in the process bonding with his son as he tries to protect him. It's also a gangster movie, set in Chicago and the 1930's era of Capone but it's not the glorious violent depictions which usually go hand in hand with gangsters, rather a some what artsy movie with stylish shoot outs and atmospheric settings, maybe a little too artsy in places with it's minimal almost blank canvases. But it is compelling, drawing you in to the simple tale, the relationship of the father and son as well as that of the father's employer thanks in no part to the performances from Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in central roles.
"Road to Perdition" tells the story of Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks - Cast Away) a hit man for suburban crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman - Message in a Bottle). Having kept his job hidden from his children, Michael is forced to explain what he does when his oldest son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses him murdering a rival gangster. Things get even more messed up when Rooney's son Connor (Daniel Craig - Quantum of Solace), jealous of the relationship between his father and Michael, murders Michael's wife and youngest child, leaving Michael seeking revenge but also the need to protect his remaining son as John is forced to hire a killer to stop Michael before he gets to Connor.
What is probably the most surprising aspect of "Road to Perdition" is in the casting of Tom Hanks, an actor who has constantly played characters you can empathise with, the good guys which are usually very nice, whilst here he takes on the role of Michael Sullivan a ruthless killer, a hired gun for suburban mob boss John Rooney. It's a character which we should not empathise with because he is a heartless killer bordering on machine like in his loyalty to Rooney, but he does have a heart as he tries to justify his career with the love of his family. In the scene when his son hides in his father's car and witnesses for the first time his father in action, you can see that side of the character, the caring father which makes the character a lot easier to like. It's not a complex character but one which like the movie differs from what you expect from a gangster flick.
Tom Hanks actually makes the character work not just because he is instantly likable but you can see his pain of justifying what he does, the murdering, the loyalty to Rooney and his family. He may not be your archetype tough guy gangster but he delivers one which in many ways is more realistic because it's not over the top, it's not the crazy tough guy, rather a calculated professional.
The same level of realism is also delivered by Paul Newman as the mob boss John Rooney, something which is not such a surprise considering the late Newman's acting ability and wide range of character portrayals. Again it's not your typical gangster mob boss but one which feels real, who actually has feelings for those in his life. When Rooney is put in the difficult situation of protecting his own son by ordering the murder of Michael you do honestly feel that it is a hard decision, one which he knows he has to do but one he wishes he didn't because of his surrogate father son relationship with Michael. The interactions between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks are the stunning moments which help to make "Road to Perdition" such compelling viewing; they are filled with subtle emotion which makes you feel for each of the characters in the difficult situation.
Whilst Jude Law appears as hired killer Harlen Maguire, Daniel Craig is John's son Connor and a few other recognizable faces such as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stanley Tucci fill up the supporting roles, it is Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Sullivan Jr. which out shines many of these recognizable faces. His portrayal of a young innocent slightly in fear of his murdering father but yet also loves him is stunningly convincing. The scenes where he watches his father from the shadows are simple but powerful as is the scene where he witnesses his first murder.
But whilst the storyline and performances make for a compelling movie which draws you into the relationships of all the main protagonists, there is something which doesn't sit so easy, well with me anyway. That is the attempt to create the right atmosphere, the darkness of the 30's and in doing so "Road to Perdition" comes across as being quite artsy, more artsy than I am comfortable with in what is a commercial movie. What do I mean; well for the first half of the movie it's all very dark with lots of shadows and minimal lighting making watching it quite tough. Then there are the sudden bursts of colour, the ventures outdoors into the snowy white surroundings which are a huge contrast to the darkness. I can appreciate what was trying to be achieved but for me it was over done, to dark and then bright in the search for atmosphere.
This artsy aspect extends to a couple of the violent scenes, and to be honest there are not many. But the over stylized shoot outs actually spoil "Road to Perdition"; the slow motion wrecks the natural flow of the scene no matter how impressive it may look. It just doesn't quite fit what otherwise is a very good movie.
What this all boils down to is that "Road to Perdition" is a compelling movie, remarkably simple but beautifully acted. It's a gangster move but not your generic action flick which glorifies the violence but a more moody one about the relationship between the characters, the need to justify killing with protecting their family. The only negative in a movie which features good performances from the likes of Paul Newman and Tom Hanks is that in search for atmosphere it often feels to arty spoiling the viewing pleasure just slightly.