Tommy Guns

Road to Perdition is a grandiose, dour Charles Bronson flick; Me Without You is both impish and wise; Tosca is a mess, but one with erotic chemistry.

Sam Mendes won the big Hollywood prize for directing American Beauty (1999), and he deserved it. He took a glib, nihilist satire of suburbia, by Alan Ball; added a patina of New Age metaphysical yearning; and, when test audiences didn’t go for Ball’s cynical finale (in which the pothead video artist played by Wes Bentley was convicted for a murder that his father committed), he lopped it off and ended the film on a note of shimmering transcendence. He gave the middlebrows what they wanted, and they gave him more than he could have dared to hope for.

Hanks and Hoechlin on the road downhill
Hanks and Hoechlin on the road downhill

I don’t know if the 36-year-old English Wunderkind is a showbiz whore by instinct or design (probably both), but reading Lynn Hirschberg’s slyly double-edged profile of him in last week’s New York Times Magazine was more fun than sitting through his sanctimonious ‘30s melodrama Road to Perdition (DreamWorks), in which Tom Hanks plays a somber gangster out to avenge the murder of his family. I began to snicker early in the piece, when Mendes described “a shadow movie underneath the text, which allows the film to float above reality”—which should be translated as: “My movie only seems like an unusually lumbering and high-toned Charles Bronson picture.” I chortled when he lauded his fearless receptivity to test screenings: “You have to have the courage to listen to the audience.” But I didn’t lose it until Mendes addressed the water imagery: “There is water everywhere and it represents the mutability of life. Those invisible things are what one searches for.” It would take a lot of mutability of life to flush away that much Academy-Award-worthy horse manure.

Mendes does have talent: He has mastered the art of pumping up sentimental clichés and passing them off as myth. From the start of Road to Perdition, in which a boy, Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), stares out at a large body of mutability and speaks his father’s epitaph, Mendes signals a religious intent: This will be a movie about salvation, not Tommy guns. At first, the mournful tone commands a sort of awe. The interiors are a deep brown, with milky, diffused light; and when the boy peers through the doorway to his father’s bedroom and glimpses his big gun, the image is suitably mysterious, even sacred.

Sullivan Sr. (Hanks), his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and two sons travel to a wake at the turreted manse of crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), and the sequence has a superbly uneasy blend of sentiment and awkwardness: Rooney, toasting the dead man with real affection, clearly had him killed. Newman has a startling presence in these early scenes. He’s inhumanly dapper, and his economy of gesture suggests the character’s fearsome power. The actor’s once reassuringly smooth voice is now a croak, but he’s easy with it—he seems to relish using it in counterpoint to his twinkle. Also at the wake is a morbid, glowingly blue-eyed creature identified as Rooney’s son Connor (Daniel Craig), who might as well have “PSYCHO MORON” projected on his forehead. That a loose cannon wields so much power in so tightly organized an outfit is meant as one of the eternal mysteries of fathers and sons; the real reason, of course, is that without a senseless maniac there would be no movie.

In the ‘30s they didn’t have take-your-kid-to-work days, so Michael Jr. hides in his dad’s car as he and Connor head off on a job. You’d think this reasonably astute adolescent wouldn’t be so surprised by what he witnesses; but he is, and he gives himself away. So Connor, in defiance of any logic—psychological, intellectual, or gangsteresque—decides to protect himself by exterminating the Sullivan family. (It’s unlikely that even a crazed paranoiac would think the dour Michael Jr. would blow the whistle on his own father.) Sullivan flees, turns to Al Capone’s Chicago mob for help, then begins to relieve Midwestern banks of Capone’s money as a means of inducing the gangster to turn over Connor for summary execution.

People are evidently fascinated by the notion of Hanks as a cold-blooded killer, but he’s not, really: His Sullivan kills only out of loyalty to his surrogate father, Rooney, and to put food on his family’s table. He’s a good, family-man hit man. This is in contrast to Maguire (Jude Law), the bad, bachelor hit man whom Capone’s mob hires to take Sullivan out. Maguire moonlights as a crime photographer and takes photos of the people he has murdered: Unlike the dutiful, stoic Sullivan, he’s a creepy little voyeur who gets off on his handiwork. Law gives a doozy of a performance: He’s fond of bulging his eyes, curling his head like a gargoyle, and displaying a set of rotten yellow teeth. This is some of the most flamboyantly bad acting since Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys (1995). An Oscar nomination would appear inevitable.

How is Hanks? Muted. This is the first movie in which his height really registers, and he wears blockish, square-shouldered suits to give him a hulking presence. But the ugly little mustache he sports is a signal he’s trying to efface his own personality, and it’s a mistake. An actor of only ordinary histrionic resources but near-genius timing, he has slowed himself way down. In the emotional climax, after the Sullivans have taken refuge at the farmhouse of an elderly couple and the boy has been purified by exposure to hoeing (I’m not joking), the father reaches haltingly out to his son; and Hanks takes so long to come out with his lines I thought the boy would pass through puberty before the scene ended.

Almost all the performances start strong and dwindle into insignificance. As Capone’s right-hand man, Stanley Tucci is poised to deliver some Mamety gangster-speak, but the writer (David Self) forgot to supply him with any. Newman’s character spends the second half in a kind of tortured paralysis, and he has nothing to do but stare into his lap. We’re told that he and Sullivan have a father-son relationship, but their intimacy hasn’t been dramatized, and so their final encounter—in a slow-motion, blue-lit drizzle of mutability—has no sting. Mythic imagery trumps psychological detail every time.

Not especially vivid mythic imagery, either. Road to Perdition is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but apart from the first killing, which the boy witnesses through a hole in a door and between his father’s shoes, it has no graphic power. There’s a flashy robbery montage, designed so that the camera moves fluidly right from bank to bank, and a spookily polite encounter between Hanks and Law in a middle-of-nowhere diner. But Mendes stylizes most of the action to give it bogus moral/religious weight, and it has little impact. This is a by-the-numbers vigilante flick that comes with a handy anti-violence message—delivered with perfect timing, after the bad guys have been blown away. Mendes can have his vengeance and then make a show of righteously renouncing it. Even the running time—one hour and 59 minutes, longer than most movies, a minute under the two-hour mark at which studio heads begin to squirm—suggests killer huckster instincts: “Step right up and get your mutability of life! Only $19.99!”

Friel and Williams strain the bonds of friendship
Friel and Williams strain the bonds of friendship

Me Without You revolves around an image with more piquancy than anything in Road to Perdition: Two adolescent English girls, Holly and Marina, lie backward on a bed with their legs up on the wall, sharing intimacies and comparing the length of their thighs. It’s a position they return to again and again, literally and metaphorically, over the course of 30 years. This rich, finely judged, gorgeously acted movie, directed by Sandra Goldbacher (from a script she wrote with Laurence Coriat), is about Holly and Marina’s gruelingly intense friendship and even more grueling (but largely unconscious) sexual rivalry, the one clearly an outgrowth of the other. Holly (Michelle Williams), the Jewish intellectual, will never be as conventionally alluring as the exhibitionistic Marina (Anna Friel); but Marina, from an ex-croupier mom and an absent dad, will never have her best friend’s creativity or centeredness. They support each other and sabotage each other almost simultaneously—in the blind, messy, instinctive way that friends do.

It’s possible that Holly, obviously a stand-in for director Goldbacher, is too drudgily put-upon, too sinned-against: We don’t see enough of her jealousy of Marina. (The American Williams is so soulfully cute—with a crack English accent—that the difference in the scale of the girls’ attractiveness isn’t as pronounced as it might have been.) But you don’t hate Marina too much for making her friend miserable. She isn’t calculating: She doesn’t think through the ways she keeps Holly separate from her brother, Nat (Oliver Milburn), when the two are obviously meant to be together. She wants to seduce the men in Holly’s life to keep Holly dependent on her.

Me Without You covers lot of ground, but never announces itself as an epic. Goldbacher’s pacing is refreshingly offhand. The men, among them the amiably indecisive Milburn and Kyle MacLachlan as a nervous American academic, are not evil, just opportunistic. In all sorts of ways they’re not aware of, they exploit Holly and Marina’s rivalry for their own ends. The best thing about this delightful movie is how these smart people avoid looking at stuff right in front of their eyes. Me Without You has the steady gaze of Jane Austen and the impishness of farce.

It’s so exciting to have a perfectly sung and acted Tosca(Avatar) on film that I’m prepared to forgive the new movie, directed by Benoit Jacquot, almost everything. But I sure wish Jacquot hadn’t bungled the look and feel. He started with a Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu, with about 75 percent of Callas’ intensity (that’s a lot) and a vastly more beautiful tone; the strongest Mario, in Gheorghiu’s husband, Roberto Alagna, I’ve ever heard; and a surprisingly low-key but chilling Scarpia in Ruggero Raimondi, who is more charismatic now than when he played the title rogue in Losey’s film of Don Giovanni.

But Jacquot has tried to map out a middle ground between stage, screen, and recording studio that doesn’t exist and is all wrong for Puccini, to boot. As Joseph Kernan and others have laboriously demonstrated, Tosca isn’t a deep or intricate piece of dramatic construction. It works as a big, bloody, overflowing wallow, raw and elemental. It isn’t enhanced by a director who keeps chucking you out of the story, interrupting the emotional flow with black-and-white inserts of the orchestra or the singers at their music stands. In key moments, Jacquot has the characters speak crucial bits of dialogue while their singing voices can be heard underneath—tantamount to saying that the spoken word is more emphatic than Puccini’s soaring lines. Madness!

The performers lip-synch to their own vocal tracks, which hurts Gheorghiu in the most emotive passages, when you just don’t want to see her and hear her, you want to seeher sing. But she has so much erotic chemistry with Alagna and Raimondi that you watch her with all senses heightened. Va, Tosca!