Sam Mendes’ follow-up to the overpraised American Beauty almost survives the miscasting of Tom Hanks, the overacting of Jude Law, an at-times leaden script, and an unhealthy preoccupation with slow visuals. With all of that, Road to Perdition is also a beautiful movie graced by some very smart, substantial performances by Paul Newman (his last big screen role) and Stanley Tucci as mobsters working in the same organization. Thomas Newman’s haunting score is perfect for the material, and the set design, art direction, costumes and cinematography recreating the Depression-era Midwest are impeccable.
But a film about fathers and sons cannot survive a child actor who does not resonate. The actor playing Hanks’ son is not awful but he’s not very good either. As our narrator, he simply doesn’t register, and as the guide to the life of his father (mob enforcer but family man Michael Sullivan, played by Hanks), this cannot do. Indeed, the last line of the film is “He was my father.”
It didn’t really seem like it.
Hanks is also problematic. His character is a bit like Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven. He is supposed to have demons. The way Sullivan is played by Hanks, however, is as more of an automaton. When things are going well, Hanks seems grimly fine with family and pot roast and a solid 9 to 5 job committing violence on behalf of his boss and father-figure (Newman). When things go poorly, you get the sense Hanks doesn’t really have much to reassess. He just seems sad that the easy 9 to 5 gig is up (and up in a rather cruel manner). When he does soften, it seems too easy, like a swell guy has been just beneath that hard surface all along. The role is a lily-pad to a villain, but Hanks drowns on it.
And can Hollywood please take the “powerful and honorable man driven to treachery by his weak issue” trope out back and put it down with a bullet? The weak son here – Daniel Craig – is entertainingly rotten, but God, I’ve had enough!
Hanks does have some moments, such as his meeting with an amused Tucci, where he tries to offer his services in return for permission to exact revenge on his old employers. But overall, I don’t think he was the right call. Bruce Willis may have been a more apt choice. Certainly Ed Harris. The best choice would have been Chris Cooper.
Still, there is enough good in here to watch.