Paul Newman and Tom Hanks co-star as violent gangsters in 1930's Chicago in a compelling and ultimately uplifting drama of fathers and sons directed by Sam Mendes. Alan Silverman has a look at Road to Perdition.
Paul Newman plays John Rooney, the iron-fisted crime boss of an Irish immigrant community near Chicago. Tom Hanks is Mike Sullivan, Rooney's top enforcer, a ruthless hit man. Each has a son to whom he has n-o-t been the best of fathers; and when Rooney's volatile son guns down a rival, Sullivan's 11-year-old son Michael is an unexpected witness.
On the run from his former partners-in-crime, Sullivan and young Michael forge a new relationship: to stay alive and, ultimately, to become a family on the Road to Perdition, which in this story is a real place (the name of an Illinois town) as well as the metaphor for damnation.
"It's about the legacy that fathers leave sons and the secret worlds parents inhabit that the child never really knows," says Director Sam Mendes. His first film, the Oscar-winning American Beauty dealt with family; but he says Road to Perdition was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the "gangster movie" genre.
"It had been a long time since I had seen a serious period gangster movie that wasn't in any way 'cartoony,' " says Mendes. "I Iwanted to go back to some of those movies that I loved when I saw them for the first time. Not only ones like Godfather movies and Once Upon a Time in America, but also tre 30s and 40s gangster movies like Public Enemy, Scarface and White Heat. These are magnificently unsentimental simple stories that stay with you," he adds, "but that if you were to try to make them today, the studio would say you are absolutely insane. So there was an element of this film that I felt had some of that lack of sentiment... some of the sense you get from those movies that the characters didn't pity themselves or try to explain their actions."
Hollywood veteran Paul Newman says the Road to Perdition theme and, what he calls, a "showy" role attracted him.
"The film, unlike other gangster films was not really about explosions. It was about family; But not in the sense of 'Mafia' family. It was really about family....and vengeance," Newman explains. "I can understand that: not only understand it, but in some cases admire it. I just found everything that happened in the film compelling and promising and it gave me the chance to deviate from the kind of stuff that I usually do."
That's certainly the case for star Tom Hanks, whose character is a cold-blooded killer and, at the outset at least, a cold and distant father.
"I thought that was fascinating about it. He has this rationale for what he does for a living: that he's protecting and supporting and providing for his family," he says, "yet that house is a dark oppressive place. It's not a joyful home in any way, shape or form. I think it's a family filled with all these things that you mention or talk about or bring to the forefront. It's a house that's based on a foundation of denial that anything is odd or out of the way, so it all goes into what happens that moment when that rationale fails him and the house of cards he's constructed for himself falls apart."
Hanks appreciates that Road to Perdition director Sam Mendes uses stillness and stunning imagery rather than dialog to build the powerful emotions.
"That's the great thing that happens when you're making movies; you have to say all this verbiage about your motivations or the plot or this and that and the other thing," says Hanks, "Sam [Mendes] does this in spades here in Road to Perdition."
Newcomer Tyler Hoechlin plays young Michael. The cast also features Jude Law, Daniel Craig and Stanley Tucci and Road to Perdition is exquisitely filmed by multiple Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall.