There’s a scene, early in Road to Perdition, at a wake, an Irish wake. We’re somewhere outside Chicago, the Great Depression is in full swing, and these people are well-dressed and well-fed and, despite the gloomy occasion, happy. They’re the families of mobsters, so they’re doing all right. But amid the reels and jigs and kind words for the deceased, there’s a rippling undercurrent of… something dark, something ominous. A sneaking suspicion began to creep up on me: a thrill, almost a fear, that I was in the presence of greatness, that there was a kind of perfection in the steely paternal nobility of Paul Newman’s crime boss, in Tom Hanks’ calmly menacing hitman, in the certainty that they were themselves responsible for the death of the man they were now mourning, in how the entire movie to come was, I imagined, being set up in the mere glances they were trading. The thrill and the fear came partly from worrying that I might be wrong, that I might be imagining this, and boy wouldn’t I feel silly later; and partly from the opposite conjecture, that I’d be right and that Road to Perdition would turn out to be one of those films that obsesses you, that insists on multiple re-viewings, that won’t leave you alone.
I probably won’t stop thinking about Road to Perdition for weeks, but I glad it’s the latter.
There’s not a thing that isn’t hauntingly, quietly electrifying about this, the first truly grown-up comic book movie. Fans of the medium have known for years that the form had no trouble being Important, but the film industry (though perhaps not all filmmakers themselves) has stubbornly insisted on treating comic adaptations as juvenile. Comics = superheroes = summer popcorn flick = throwaway junk. It’s extraordinary enough that director Sam Mendes — and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and screenwriter David Self, but mostly Mendes — has taken the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner and transformed it into something awe-inspiring. It’s even more extraordinary that Hollywood is treating Road to Perdition like the second coming of The Godfather. That it actually may be, is the final straw of passing-strangeness.
Don’t tell the snoots, but Road to Perdition is pulpy to its core, in a way that recognizes the fundamental, mythic themes of pulp fiction, those of vengeance and honor and self-discovery. This story could only be set in the 1930s, when the desperation of the Depression gave rise to figures like Batman. Mendes (American Beauty) and Hall cloak much of the film in noirish darkness and rain, and their mobster characters in anonymous, almost clerical overcoats and fedoras, and as the films opens its scope and begins to take on the point of view of 12-year-old Michael Sullivan, son of Hanks’ Mike Sullivan Sr., the likeness to the formative Batman story only increases. When Michael witnesses one of his father’s “jobs” for his boss, John Rooney (Newman: Where the Money Is, Message in a Bottle), it sets in motion a chain of events that results in Sullivan Sr. introducing his son, reluctantly but of necessity, to his work, work that is dangerous not only legally and physically but morally and spiritually.
Hanks (Cast Away, The Green Mile), with an unself-conscious gravitas like nothing he’s shown us before, takes the paradoxical Sullivan — cold-blooded killer and loving, devoted father — and makes him a tragic hero, a man driven by dark intent while also driven to prevent his son from following his own dismal path. Screen newcomer Tyler Hoechlin, just 13 years old, makes us genuinely fear for Michael Jr.’s soul, evincing a complicated inner life for his character that few young actors can achieve and showing us in Michael real potential for slipping over to the dark side. Young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents murder and that pushed him over an edge from which there was no return. Will similar trauma — learning at an early age some of the dirty secrets of the world — do that to Michael? On this road to hell, the journey, not only the destination, is the point.
Mendes frames the whole affair like the grimmest graphic novel ever conceived, where shadows and light and composition and even sound effects (or lack thereof) pay tribute to still images. The culmination of Sullivan Sr.’s own journey of self-discovery — for not only his son has much to learn about himself — is a street gun battle that plays out in silence, as it would on the page, the flashes of light from machine guns telling us all we need to know.
In a story like this, the real bad guys are the ones who aren’t morally conflicted about their bad deeds — Bruce Wayne would know what I’m talking about. Jude Law (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Enemy at the Gates) is at his slimiest and most disgusting here as Maguire, a hired killer who takes souvenir photos of his victims — aka “The Reporter,” a comic-worthy moniker for a character who is defined by the visual, but what he sees (and as a consequence, by what he shows us: photos of the dead). Daniel Craig (Tomb Raider, Elizabeth) is Connor Rooney, son of Newman’s crime boss and a putative brother to Sullivan Sr., but one with the motives of Cain.
The elemental wallop that Road to Perdition delivers is like the one that keeps kids up at night, reading comic books under the covers with a flashlight: the realization that these mythic stories — of Batman or Cain and Abel or the Michaels Sullivan — aren’t just mythic but apply to us all. How do we keep our moral bearings in a world full of evil? I’m not sure that anyone has an answer to that. The deep-down satisfaction comes from the fact that someone is bothering to think about the question at all. It’s a startling epiphany for a kid, and just as startling to be reminded of the quandary as an adult.