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Sullivan's Travels

Things are not always as they seem on the complex Road to Perdition.

If you don't object to the occasional metaphor coming from the barrel of a gun, you'll probably find Sam Mendes's quirky period gangster movie Road to Perdition intellectually stimulating, emotionally complex and gorgeous to look at. This is the gifted British stage director's first film since his startling and provocative movie debut, American Beauty (1999), and it's clear that he means to keep testing the limits of genre while challenging our ideas and perceptions about human behavior.

Don't be misled by the huge movie-star names on the marquee. Multiple Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Paul Newman obviously took this project on not for its commercial appeal, but for the opportunities it gave them to test their limits in a high-budget art film that just happens -- on the surface -- to be about Irish-American mobsters caught up in a deadly Midwestern blood feud in the winter of 1931. As with American Beauty, the intricacies of Mendes's social vision and the richness of his subtexts about the meaning of family and the uses of power never let up: A bullet is not just a bullet here -- it's a mixed message that film-history classes could be discussing decades from now.

The dour, doomed principals of the piece are an unhappy mid-level gangster called Michael Sullivan (a jowly, gray-faced Hanks) and his surrogate father, the weary crime boss John Rooney (the wintry Newman). The place where they ply their trade -- gambling, prostitution, bootlegging -- is not Chicago, with all its tawdry glamour, but provincial Rock Island, Illinois, a grim outpost that looks like hell frozen over but is possessed of a certain poetic glint. The great cinematographer Conrad Hall (American Beauty, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) renders that emotional effect beautifully with his dark, desaturated colors, abetted by production designer Dennis Gassner's pall of gloom and the rough, black, sometimes threadbare suits costume designer Albert Wolsky hangs on the film's worn-out heavies. Mendes calls the look "soft noir," as good a term as any.

Paul Newman and Tom Hanks lead a stellar cast in Sam Mendes's latest film.
Paul Newman and Tom Hanks lead a stellar cast in Sam Mendes's latest film.

Aside from Perdition's triumph of atmosphere -- Hall's Rock Island is no less menacing than The Godfather's shadowy, oak-paneled office -- the film also manages to become a major-league morality play, salted with enough Old Testament revenge and reheated Greek tragedy to satisfy the most demanding classicist. As dramatic convention dictates, Sullivan and Rooney both have sons. The former's boy is a clear-eyed twelve-year-old, Michael Jr. (newcomer Tyler Hoechlin); the latter's is a nasty psychopath, Conner Rooney (Daniel Craig), who's burning with rage, not least because his own father has always favored Sullivan. When a mob warning turns into a killing and that killing provokes a massacre, the two families are forced onto a path of mutually assured destruction that Shakespeare -- not to mention masters of cinematic violence like Leone, Coppola and Peckinpah -- would appreciate.

Fathers and Sons. Crime and Punishment. Sin and Redemption. Mendes and his superb actors wade into the philosophical thick of it all with no apparent fear. The genesis of the film is, oddly, a wordless "graphic novel" (read: glorified comic book) by a young artist named Max Allan Collins, but the director and his screenwriter, David Self (Thirteen Days), have used it as a mere sketch. In expanding the story visually and dramatically, they are even bold enough to send their fictional Michael Sullivan off to Chicago for a meeting with the legendary Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), in which Sullivan's small-potatoes status in the impersonal big city is confirmed when he asks Tucci's rather too mannerly, deep-thinking Nitti permission to exact revenge.

Instead, the guilty and regretful Michael Sr. gets a rare chance to bond with his son -- the theme that Mendes and Self have clearly wanted to examine all along. Careering through the chill hinterlands of Illinois in their upright Chevrolet, father and son commit an uplifting series of Bonnie and Clyde-style bank stickups, even while pursued by a cold-blooded hit man (Jude Law) who doubles as a crime-scene photographer and enjoys both careers immensely. This family interlude on the rutted roads, spiced with the occasional joke, may cause some to wonder if Mendes knows anything about the persistence of grief in twelve-year-olds. But in Perdition's surreal landscape, almost anything is possible, even a rain-drenched slaughter on a night-struck street in which the avenging machine gun remains completely silent and the fallen bodies array themselves in a deathscape so poetic it looks as though Vincent Minnelli blocked it out for an MGM musical. This beautifully terrifying sequence, and a few others, may be debated for years, but one thing is sure: When it comes to stylizing violence, Mendes is the new master. Road to Perdition is not just the most provocative gangster movie in decades (get in the back seat, Scarface; you, too, GoodFellas); it may also be the prettiest.

Of Hanks, Newman and Law, it can be said that their extraordinary performances are made less of declamation than of telling gesture, a method that represents movie acting at its best. Irish-born Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt helped Newman install the faint brogue he employs here, and it perfectly suits the character: Mr. Rooney was once an immigrant street thug; now he's a polished but crooked CEO type, anticipating the bigwigs at Enron or Qwest by seventy years. The boy, Tyler Hoechlin, seems exactly right for the part and remains admirably understated in difficult circumstances. But then, he was chosen from among 2,000 candidates. The remaining cast, including Craig as the evil Rooney son and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael Sullivan's ill-fated wife, are ideally cast and beautifully directed.

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