Reprinted from the Aug. 2002 VP.
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our content rating (1-10): Violence 7; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Honor your father and your mother,
so that your days may be long in the land that the
Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder
In those days they shall no longer say:
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
But all shall die for their own sins;
the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set
Sam Mendes first film following his acclaimed American Beauty transports us into a very different world from that of his earlier one. The time is the 1930’s when the power of gang mobs, enriching themselves with bootleg liquor, made the headlines and controlled many politicians and policemen. Paul Newman and Tom Hanks play against their usual good guy screen persona, portraying ruthless gangsters in an un-named city not within driving distance of Chicago. Paul Newman is John Rooney, gang boss, who loves Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) as much as his own son Connor (Daniel Craig). Rooney raised the orphaned Michael and tutored him in his law-breaking way of violence. Michael is strong, whereas Connor is weak. The strongest part of the latter’s character is his hidden envy and resentment of Michael’s place in his father’s heart. Thus, Connor awaits the opportunity to strike at the usurper of his father’s affections. That opportunity arrives very early in the film.
Michael is married to Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is sadly under-utilized in the script), and the couple have two sons, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), about 13 years of age, and Peter, a few years younger. Both boys idolize their father, even though he is away so much that he has missed most of their growing up, almost always excusing himself from their school performances and athletic games. Neither has a clue as to what their father’s business is, Michael strictly segregating his life as a gang hit man from his private family life. Young Michael, however is determined to find out, hiding under the rear seat of his father’s car when the senior Sullivan sets out one rainy night on a job. Michael arrives at his destination, where he meets Connor, and the two go into a barn to confront several men. Young Michael watches with wide-eyed horror when Connor loses his temper and begins shooting the men. Michael Sr. disgustedly joins in, cold bloodedly dispatching any who are wounded.
The two killers discover that they have a witness, and are surprised that it is Michael. His father, making the boy promise that he will tell no one, assures the skeptical Connor that he need not fear anything. Connor is not so certain. When he tells Rooney what has happened, the latter is very angry with him for needlessly shedding blood, but reluctantly agrees that the potential problem of young Michael must be fixed. As much as he loves Michael and wishes Connor were like him, he chooses his own flesh and blood. The result is terrible tragedy for the Sullivans.
The two Michaels find themselves on the road, fleeing for their lives from a hired assassin hot on their trail. Maguire (Jude Law) works as a photography taking pictures of murder scenes, some of them turning out to be his own work, for his real money comes from the gangs that hire him to do their dirty work. During the Sullivans’ flight, which entails a visit to Chicago where Michael hopes to find protection from Al Capone’s chief lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), to a string of bank robberies, to the home of a kindly farm couple, father and son for the first time become close. The boy cannot condone the crimes of his father, but the hit man is his father none-the-less.
The senior Michael’s biggest fear is not their implacable pursuer, who comes close to eliminating them a couple of times, but the strong aversion to seeing his son follow in his footsteps. He knows all too well what kind of a person he is, so he hopes that the terrible judgment of Exodus 20:5 (“for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation…”) will not descend upon his son. At the climax, there is a strange moment of grace, the dark film thus ending on a note of hope, similar to what Jeremiah wrote to his captive countrymen after their defeat by the Babylonians.
Some critics have noted that Tom Hanks might not have been the best choice to play such a cold-blooded character. The filmmakers must have realized this, as the script has Michael Sullivan killing guys that deserve their fate. This is like the Hollywood gangster of the old days, as played by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart: the audience’s sympathy is drawn to the bad guy so much that we root for him rather than the police out to get him. Still, we have to admire Tom Hanks the actor for taking on another role, as he did with Philadelphia, that goes against audience expectations. And to be paired with the legendary Paul Newman, whose presence brings quality to any film. This is one Road you want to take for the thrill of the ride, despite its destination.
Interesting touch: Young Michael in several scenes is reading one of those ten-cent Better Little Books about the Lone Ranger. This is the story of a good man who appears to be a bad man because of his mask. The boy is soon to learn that his father, who appears to be a good man, actually is one who kills in cold blood.