Road to Perdition

“Road to Perdition” is a film where all the elements come together so organically that you can’t imagine it succeeding without every part intact.

Calling it a Tom Hanks vehicle doesn’t do justice to the director, screenwriter, cinematographer or supporting actors, and calling it a Sam Mendes film, in honor of the director, neglects everyone else. This movie could have relied on any one of its strengths and let the other jobs by filled by less talented people; instead, it strives for, and achieves, excellence in nearly every area. It is one of the best films of the year.

The subject matter is tricky: Our protagonist is a killer. Worse, our protagonist is a killer played by Tom Hanks. He is Michael Sullivan, who grew up without a father and was taken in by Irish organized crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the suburbs of 1930s Chicago. All Michael’s young sons, Michael Jr. and Peter, know about their dad is that he “works for Mr. Rooney,” who is like a rascally grandfather to them.

One rainy night, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in Michael’s car and sees him and Rooney’s son Connor (Daniel Craig) carry out a mission that ends in several deaths. The younger Sullivan is horrified, his father no less so upon learning what his son has witnessed.

Michael assures the Rooneys that his son can keep a secret. John seems convinced. Connor, already established as a hot-head, is not so sure. Some terrible things happen, and then the two Michael Sullivans are on the road, seeking to perform one last mission that will put a stop to the killing forever. (The younger Michael leaves his bicycle behind in the snow, a fitting homage to the lost sled in “Citizen Kane.”)

Someone in the film says, “Sons are born to make trouble for their fathers,” and “Road to Perdition” is basically a film about the father-son relationship. What Michael Sullivan wants more than anything is for his son not to follow in his footsteps. What his son wants is his father’s approval.

This is only Mendes’ second film, after “American Beauty,” but already he commands attention. His work is smooth and careful, and he embraces subtlety.

He wisely re-teamed here with his “American Beauty” compatriots Thomas Newman, who wrote the haunting Irish-themed score, and Conrad L. Hall, whose cinematography is a work of art. Everything is attractively framed and handsomely photographed; like most great films, this one is as enjoyable to look at as it is to listen to.

We’re so used to seeing Tom Hanks act brilliantly that his excellent work here seems like par for the course. Watch his eyes. He acts with them, and he says more with them than with his dialogue. Michael Sullivan may be a killer, but no one with Tom Hanks’ eyes can be a truly bad man. He will probably be nominated for a well-deserved Oscar, as will Paul Newman, whose piercing blue eyes convey a lot in his performance, too.

Jude Law is noteworthy in a small role as a grisly photographer who does freelance work for Rooney, and Stanley Tucci is characteristically reliable as an associate of Al Capone’s. Young Tyler Hoechlin carries a heavy load admirably as Michael Jr.

A (1 hr., 59 min.; R, scattered harsh profanity, a lot of shooting violence.)