Road to Perdition
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by David Self
Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin


Road to Perdition

Sam Mendes, the wunderkind of London theatre, where he's been a directing and producing star for the past decade, came to the United States in 1999 and dazzled us with "American Beauty," a film that combined a satirical look at our country's values with a scarifying portrait of a family in agony, all told by a dead man. Now, for his second film, he has taken a recent graphic novel about a hit man for an Illinois gang in the Prohibition year of 1931, and told the story through the eyes of his 12-year-old son.

Tom Hanks is Mike Sullivan, informally adopted as a fatherless child by gang boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), for whom he now kills on command. His wife knows his work; his two boys are simply told, when he leaves one night on an assignment, "He's putting food on your table." But Michael Junior (Tyler Hoechlin) is too curious to accept that, and one night he hides in his father's car where he witnesses a murder. That the murder was done not by Mike but by Rooney's real son Connor (Daniel Craig), a loose cannon who cannot abide his father's love for Mike, triggers the all-stops-out race from here to the end of the film.

Connor, trying to keep the boy from telling what he saw, comes to the Sullivan house and kills Mike's wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his other son, mistaking him for Michael. Now, to protect itself, the gang must kill both father and son, the wrenching decision made by Rooney to protect Connor. The two Michaels flee, and the rest of the film is their journey to their destinies, the road to perdition that everyone must take.

The film was shot in a muted sepia by the great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who in his long career has lit and shot everything from "Cool Hand Luke" to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to "Fat City" to, well, "American Beauty." He is sparing with his light here, working with faces shadowed by fedoras and by the low-wattage bulbs of the 1930s. And for the hell of it he, or Mendes, even throws in a shot that's an homage to Hitchcock's great moment in "North by Northwest" where Cary Grant is left standing at the bleak farm crossroads by the bus.

Everyone involved in this film, from Steven Spielberg's company Dreamworks, which produced it, to Mendes and his stars, obviously regards it as a major statement about fathers and sons, crime and punishment, and the righting of wrongs. And yet somehow the film remains too cold to fully engage us. The near-mute Mike, who cannot express his feelings to his son but can only act out his destiny; the boss Rooney, who has built his empire with a gaping hole inside, the festering wound of his biological son Connor that eats away at him; and even young Michael, who is more our surrogate than he is a real human being; all try their best but cannot bring the film to life. It is a panorama more than a true drama; they, the people in it, feel pain but we, in the audience, do not. They are their creators' puppets; they do not have the breath of life. Contrast this with "The Godfather," a film also about fathers and sons, about a gang, about murders and executions. In "The Godfather" everything that happens - every action and reaction in the plot - comes out of who these people are. And the people are more deeply drawn; they do not concern themselves only with who to kill and who to save. Their acts are almost incidental to their personalities, and because we know them so well we are all the more deeply involved with what they do. Puzo and Coppola created real people, and then gave them something to do. Mendes and his writer David Self created a plot, and then tried to fill it in with people.

"Road to Perdition" is not a bad film; it just plays on one note. There are too few harmonics, those overtones and undertones that deepen and enrich the best works of art. Nevertheless it carries us along quite well on the flight to Perdition, and along the way introduces two interesting characters: Jude Law is Maguire, a kind of angel of death, who photographs the dead and sells the photos to the tabloids, and is also an executioner; and Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, Al Capone's right-hand man. He is closest to the kind of gangland figures we saw in "The Godfather," where we get glimpses of a real human being inside the businessman. The film does pick up more depth and texture when they are around, but at its core it leaves us wanting.