Tom Hanks, probably nobody's idea of a humorless killer cut from the GoodFella cloth, has taken a role markedly different from anything he's done before. From the first frames, it's clear that Hanks didn't sign on because he figured he'd get to chew the scenery as a bug-eyed psychopath. His character, Michael Sullivan, is clearly a paradox, a quiet, disciplined man who probably would have ended up as an accountant had he not chosen the path of being the main enforcer for John Rooney (Paul Newman), a powerful crime kingpin with ties to Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) and Al Capone (never shown) in nearby Chicago. Sullivan's a family man, devoted but not doting, with a loving wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and adoring young sons Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken). Rooney is also a family man, not only protective of his rash, none-too-bright son Connor (Daniel Craig) but also of Sullivan and his brood.
Yet things go terribly awry when young Michael, determined to find out what his dad does for a living, hides in the back of his car and ends up witnessing a mob-related massacre. Sullivan is shaken once he learns of his kid's presence but merely states, "He's my son" when Connor asks him whether the boy will blab. Not that this answer satisfies Connor: He takes it upon himself to have the entire family wiped out, but the job only gets half-done, leaving Michaels senior and junior alive and seeking retribution.
Many of the graphic novel's gory action sequences have been trimmed, yet it's the tweaking of one character and the addition of another that allow Road to Perdition to qualify as that rare film that improves upon its source material. The transition of the book's John Rooney (actually, Looney in the book, but Mendes and Self probably didn't want to have to contend with audience titters) from benevolent father figure to raving villain was never entirely believable, but Self, aided by a terrific turn from Paul Newman, solves the problem by never allowing Rooney to lose his humanity. Every step of the way, Rooney feels the anguish regarding the mess his son has created, and even though he refuses to give Connor up, he also does everything in his power to urge Sullivan to just leave the country. It's a significant and smart change, adding an extra dynamic to the various father-son tensions that resonate throughout the picture.
And while the novel's Michael Sullivan is pretty much the pursuer, the film version also makes him the pursued, adding a vital character nowhere to be found on the printed (and illustrated) page. Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley), with rotted teeth and loping gait, plays his part of Maguire as a Weegee gone wild -- a crime scene photographer who doubles as an assassin-for-hire. This might seem like an extraneous character, but instead it offers a further contrast to the different levels of immorality on view in this picture (John Rooney kills for the sake of protecting business interests, Michael Sullivan kills out of a sense of duty, Maguire kills simply for pleasure and profit).
Veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall earned his second Oscar for shooting Mendes' American Beauty, and it's hard to imagine he won't be in the running again for his beautifully detailed work on this picture. There's a late sequence in which Sullivan stands in front of a large beachhouse window; it's a stunning visual composition, ranking alongside a marvelously staged cafe showdown between Sullivan and Maguire that derives much of its punch from Hall's tight framing of each protagonist's highly expressive face.
Yet for all its visual panache and compelling supporting characters, the heart of the film rests in the relationship between Sullivan and his son. Recognizing that the boy possesses many of his traits, but seeking to steer him away from a similar lifestyle, Sullivan over the course of the picture learns to grow in his acceptance of the qualities that define his sensitive offspring. And for his part, young Michael is able to wholly love his father yet also understand the inherent evil in his chosen line of work. The movie may be titled Road to Perdition, but in the final analysis, its central characters are marching inexorably down the road to redemption.