What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.
I watched my dad die. After a five-year battle with cancer, his fight ended with a whimper from the hospital bed in our living room, where he once stood tall and seemed larger than life. Seeing him shrink and quietly fade away was something I never expected to witness … because, for so long, I hadn’t seen the vulnerability behind his bravado.
My dad was a burly guy with a formidable presence. With his dark, wavy hair and signature sly grin, he looked a bit like Tom Hanks. But he also had a mob-boss demeanor. If you didn’t know him, you might think his restaurant career was a cover for dirty work. He carried himself that way, smoking cigars and schmoozing with people in dimly lit fine dining establishments. When he worked for Morton’s of Chicago, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Marilyn Manson and Ray Liotta — another clue that my dad may have been a goodfella.
Dad was an incredibly charming and gracious guy, but when I was growing up, my friends seemed scared of him, and even my brother and I tiptoed around him. It’s not that he was a threat, it’s that he seemed like he had it all together, so we were ashamed to show him our fears and flaws. As we grew older, we discovered he had his own, which was at once comforting and frustrating. Resentment simmered inside us when we found ourselves in the position of having to protect him. But as his illness progressed, we stopped longing for the old version of our dad and focused on cherishing the one we had left.
Road to Perdition follows a 12-year-old boy named Michael Sullivan (Tyler Hoechlin) as he goes through a similar process with his father over the course of six weeks in the winter of 1931. His dad, Michael, Sr. (Tom Hanks), is the right-hand henchman to Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). After Mike’s parents died — likely at the hands of Rooney — the crime kingpin raised him and grew to love him more than his biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Favoritism seems to run in Sullivan’s family, too, as Mike gravitates more toward young Peter (Liam Aiken) than Michael, his elder son. But he soon has to open up to Michael when the boy witnesses his dirty work. This discovery leads to tragedy and forces the two to go on the run.
Like I did with my dad, Michael starts to see his father’s fear. But Hanks doesn’t lay it on thick. This is easily his most subdued, restrained performance. My dad was similarly stoic. He put on a poker face. When he was in an unnervingly vulnerable position, he’d disarm us with humor. The morning after his first major cancer surgery, he lifted his hospital gown as if he was going to flash us. Later that day, when his eyes were severely dilated and he was disoriented from medicine, he turned to us and said, “This is so fucking weird.” Smiles spread across our scared faces.
For a long time, I felt a bit distant from my dad, like he was withholding something. He didn’t favor my brother, but there seemed to be less tension, less approval seeking. Near the end of Road to Perdition, Michael asks his father if he prefers Peter. When he assures him that he loves them equally, Michael says, “But you were different with me.” His father replies, “Maybe it was because Peter was such a sweet boy, and you … were more like me. And I didn’t want you to be.”
The answers to my own questions lied in that response. Like my dad, I loved movies and writing, and I dreamed of seeing my name in lights. When my byline appeared in publications while he was sick, I sensed a bit of envy and resentment. His pride in me felt like something I had to pry out of him. The stakes were high, and like Michael, I felt pressure to get some kind of perfect response from my father that would give me peace of mind. But he expressed his pride plenty of times. I was just too consumed with anxiety to see it. And that’s what he didn’t want me to be — anxious, insecure, angry, lost in my head and blind to the beauty of the moment.
Road to Perdition hinges upon that same kind of tension between the father and son. Death looms over them, pushing them to put everything on the table and wear their emotions on their sleeves. Here comes the question of whether Michael should even want that kind of intimacy given the fact that his father is a murderer. Does his dad deserve redemption?
Tales of fathers and sons are as old as storytelling itself, and that bond has long transcended the moral borders built back in biblical times. Even Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker grow to love each other on the same level as God and Jesus. Road to Perdition has a pretty good answer to the question about Michael and his father’s relationship. Michael says, “When people ask me if Mike Sullivan was a good man — or if there was just no good in him at all — I always give the same answer. I just tell them, ‘He was my father’.”
Hanks brings out the good in Mike. He portrays him as man who was unfortunately born into crime rather than a cold-blooded gangster. He always shows a glimmer of love for Mr. Rooney but a glower for the grisly tasks he has to do for him. Director Sam Mendes, along with master cinematographer Conrad Hall, paint him like the lone, somber nighthawk in Edward Hopper’s iconic painting. My dad was also a quiet, solitary man.
Hanks deserves my thanks for this film more than any other. When I revisited it for this series, I felt like I was reuniting with my dad in many ways. Hanks for that, Tom.