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Killer angel
Hanks takes the high Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition
Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. With Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Liam Aiken. A DreamWorks Pictures release. At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Harvard Square, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Touch of evil

So how can Tom Hanks, America’s poster child for decency and family values, play a serial killer? As Michael Sullivan in Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition, he’s an efficient, remorseless hit man for a 1930s Chicago-based mob.

Yet as Hanks points out, it’s not as if it were his first time. "I mean, when I did The Green Mile, I said, ‘Look, I play an executioner.’ ‘Yeah [he imagines by way of response], but you’re a really nice executioner.’ ‘Okay, all right. So now, I kill like 15 people in this movie.’ ‘Yeah, but you do it for really good reasons.’ I said, ‘All right, all right, I guess I do.’ "

Then there’s Saving Private Ryan, where he kills far more people for all the right reasons.

"And that’s also a story about the rationale, how you get from one place to the next, how do you get to this place where your life has been completely altered by whatever circumstances. You’ve been able to rationalize everything. And you realize in a moment that this rationale does not hold in the brave new world that you suddenly find yourself in.

"More than anything else, Michael suddenly realizes, ‘Everything I constructed in order to protect myself and my family has fallen by the wayside in a moment’s notice, so everything was a lie up to that. The house, the marriage, the kids, everything was a friggin’ lie.’ Look at the family, look at that house that he’s protecting. He doesn’t come home and play ball with the kids or anything. That is the darkest, scariest, most dysfunctional house you’ve ever seen. This is the thing that he’s gonna go off and you, know, seek retribution for? Now that’s neither a good guy nor a bad guy, that’s just a human being that’s in the middle of something that’s much bigger than he ever planned on."

Yikes. A "friggin’ lie?" Whatever happened to the guy making speeches praising the Greatest Generation? He certainly wasn’t the person Sam Mendes, whose American Beauty was hardly a Hallmark greeting card for American family values, was looking for when he cast the movie.

"It’s a risk casting anyone against type or away from what they’re known to do," Mendes acknowledges. "But you know, there’s one thing better than having a great actor; it’s having a great actor who’s never done what you’re asking him to do before, and he’s hungry to get out of the trailer every day and hungry to try something new, to test himself.

"Actors get pigeonholed very quickly, particularly movie actors — in the theater one is much more used to casting people against type and trusting that their talent and skill will get them through. But Tom has something else if you look at his early films, particularly Punchline or Philadelphia, there’s a lot of rage in there, and a lot of darkness, and it stands next to him. He’s so brilliant at relaxing everyone and coming up with a wisecrack and being funny and witty and all of those things, but when you do a movie with him, you’re aware that there’s a kind of shadow Tom that stands next to him all the time. That he steps into when he acts. And that’s the one that I was trying to access."

Hanks acknowledges that angry streak, and he uses it as a way of getting an insight into "evil." "I would never see myself robbing banks, but I could see myself being very angry, and, you know, wanting to rob. They [the characters I play] don’t have to be me, but I have to understand their motivations. There’s a lot of opportunity to play the villain with the capital ‘V.’ This villain doesn’t exist. It’s like a James Bond villain. ‘Before I kill you, Mr. Bond, perhaps you’d enjoy a tour of my installation.’ The idea of world dominance, or, you know, I want to be the biggest cocaine dealer, I don’t get it. But where motivation is involved, then I can see myself wanting to do that sort of thing."

Will audiences in this post–September 11 world of polarized good and evil appreciate this kind of moral searching and ambiguity, especially during the escapist summer-movie season? Will they embrace a film that seems ambivalent about American and family values?

"I don’t think it’s a negative look at America," Mendes counters. "I think it’s about America, and it’s about human beings, and it’s a universal story. People are capable of good and bad. And the longer we go on perpetuating these absurd two-dimensional stories about everything being black and white and you’re either good or bad, the longer we’ll misunderstand how many interesting stories you can tell in the space between the two. That’s what this movie attempts to do. There’s no message from it. Except there are many questions asked, and it’s up to people to answer them when they leave the theater."

— PK

Tom Hanks makes for an uncomfortable John Wayne. Or is it Jimmy Stewart? He’s the closest we’ve got these days to a Hollywood icon that embodies righteousness, decency, and the American Way. The youngest person to receive an AFI Life Achievement Award, he looked a little awkward balancing Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party with his sanctimonious do-gooder roles in Apollo 13, Philadelphia, and Forrest Gump, not to mention the Greatest Generation idolatry of Saving Private Ryan.

So before he starts pitching War Bonds, maybe it’s time for a change of image (Cast Away came close to it, though nobody cared). How about playing a sympathetic serial killer? (Or did he already do that in Private Ryan?) Sam Mendes follows up his Oscar-winning debut, American Beauty with an adaptation of Max Allan Collins’s cult-favorite 1998 graphic novel Road to Perdition in which Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a hit man for a local chapter of the Capone mob run by lovable old sod John Rooney (Paul Newman, with an errant accent), Michael’s benefactor and father figure. Michael’s own 12-year-old son, Michael Jr. (newcomer Tyler Hoechlin), meanwhile, is curious about what dad does for a living. He ends up peeking at a different kind of primal scene; that leads to the killing of Sullivan’s wife (a short-lived Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his younger son. The killer turns out to be John Rooney’s real son, the dissipated and treacherous Connor (Daniel Craig). After some subdued bloodletting, Michael and son must hit the road to Perdition, Michigan, where the boy can find refuge with a handy aunt while dad heads out unfettered to make things right.

In the original book, the names are O’Sullivan and Looney. Those aren’t the only changes. O’Sullivan is nicknamed the "Angel of Death" for his remorseless efficiency, and he operates like Clint Eastwood at the end of Unforgiven, except with a kid tagging along. The book is like The Pilgrim’s Progress in reverse. Hanks’s Michael is more like the dad in Sleepless in Seattle, except heavily armed. Taking Meg Ryan’s place here, perhaps, is Jude Law, himself apparently trying to alter his image from that of the Brit pretty boy. Got up like a deranged Stan Laurel with funky teeth, he puts on the film’s best performance as Maguire, who’s hired by Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to take out Michael. A Weegee-like crime photographer gone over to the other side, Maguire is one of screenwriter David Self’s more inspired inventions, a link between the worlds of voyeurism and action, a theme that also figures in American Beauty.

Call it American Ugly. Although the Newman-Hanks match-up in the film is what’s being hyped, the most compelling tête-à-tête is an eerie confrontation between Michael and Maguire in a diner. Its evocation of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks underscores the influence of cinematographer Conrad Hall (some say he was the real director of Beauty), who eschews the noirish and startling Richard Piers Rayner artwork of the original book and instead takes an art-history approach to the imagery, with tableaux reminiscent of Thomas Eakins, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, and photographer Walker Evans.

Mendes also seems to have organized his film visually rather than in narrative or dramatic terms. The whole pseudo-Dostoyevskian, pseudo-Biblical rigmarole of fathers and sons, loyalty and treachery, with its Hanks-friendly, family-values copout resolution, offers none of the punch or clarity of a single shot of a hall full of weary, monochromatic men sitting in rows, each reading a newspaper (talk about being black and white and read all over). Or the sinister, insidious appearances of coins as an emblem of death, or the inescapable doppelgänger of mirrors, or the soothing presence of water in various forms as a teasing promise of life, redemption, and release.

This last motif surges in the film’s coda with a sequence that is 2002’s most rapturous, a long, undulating shot that combines serenity and horror. As depressing as the film’s relentless darkness (and this may be one of the darkest summer movies of all time) might have been, the light suffusing this scene is even more disturbing. When he reaches the end of Road to Perdition, Tom Hanks may not have changed his image, but this image could well change him.

Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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