The decade following Tom Hanks’ second Oscar win, for 1994’s Forrest Gump, is arguably the most fascinating era of his career. It’s a period in which Hanks, who became just the second actor in history to win two consecutive Best Actor Oscars (Spencer Tracy was the first), could have done just about anything he wanted. He could have leaned hard into the transition from 1980s comedy star to Serious Actor, chosen his roles purely by their emotional weight and remained committed to chasing still more Academy Awards. He could have also swung into pure Nice Guy mode and used the rest of his career to delight and entertain without a smidgen of ambiguity.
What we got instead was proof of Hanks’ still-thriving versatility and near-constant sense of intellectual and artistic curiosity, a decade of roles that challenged him after his leading man prowess was honored two years in a row on the Academy stage. He did the Nice Guy movies, of course, following up Gump with the reliable Ron Howard re-team Apollo 13 and voiced everyone’s favorite stuffed cartoon cowboy in Toy Story. But Hanks also showed an interest in playing guys who were, if not evil, then at least not entirely pleasant. We saw a peek of it in That Thing You Do!, his glorious feature directorial debut, in which he co-starred as the unapologetically ambitious and sometimes manipulative record executive Mr. White. Then, with the help of Steven Spielberg, he took that movie star twinkle in his eye to the beaches of Normandy and gave us Saving Private Ryan’s devastated, haunted Captain John Miller—a man both committed to duty and willing to stray from the realm of moral absolutes if it means another day of survival on the battlefield.
Then came Road to Perdition.
In hindsight, Sam Mendes’ understated, heartbreaking saga of a father’s attempt to break the cycles of violence upon which he built his family feels like a natural evolution of Hanks’ work in films like A League of Their Own and Saving Private Ryan—really, even in Toy Story, with its study of the selfishness and ruthlessness shown by Sheriff Woody. After years of playing flawed but ultimately good men fighting to overcome the compromises of their lives, here was Hanks playing a man whose moral compass, or lack thereof, is the center of an entire narrative. Two decades later, it ranks among his most remarkable work, a performance that both fits into his wider career and serves as a stirring reminder that, any time he wants, Hanks can weaponize his place as America’s Resident Dad and use it for something darker.
The film opens with a question about Hanks’ Mike Sullivan, a mob enforcer in the 1930s Midwest who’s a dutiful husband and father, and a faithful servant to kingpin Tom Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan’s son Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) tells us that people are always asking him if Mike Sullivan was a good man or a bad man. It’s Mendes laying down the thematic gauntlet of the film, a film the title tells us will be about a journey into some kind of hell. Can a man still be good if he builds his life on sin, and if a bad man does one good thing before he dies, does he die a good man?
For the next two hours, Hanks carries these questions in his determined, steely, movie-star eyes, playing a man with a scary reputation who doesn’t want to scare his children, a man with a violent job who doesn’t want a violent life for his offspring. When young Michael witnesses his father gunning down two men, Rooney’s jealous son (Daniel Craig) uses the loose end as an excuse to eradicate the Sullivan family. With his wife and youngest son dead, Mike takes Michael and heads on a quest first for justice, then for all-out revenge.
In interviews from Road to Perdition’s promotion cycle, Hanks was keenly aware of the contrast between his Nice Guy image and the man he’d been tasked with inhabiting. ”There is no doubt that a degree of this ‘image’ is going to follow you into every gig,” he told EW. He knew it would be seen as the breaking of a certain cycle, an against-type gamble that might upend his standing as America’s resident Movie Good Dude, and it shows in his performance. There’s a restraint to Mike Sullivan, helped along in the first act by the distance Mendes’ camera keeps from the character, and from Hanks’ familiar gaze. We’re being eased into something—getting on a ramp the film will slowly climb—and as Mendes starts that ascent, Hanks begins walking a fascinating line.
The moral core of Road to Perdition is not subtle. Mike Sullivan is a violent man who fought in a war, came home, and became a killer on behalf of a man who built his own fortune on violence. He wants his son to avoid that. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, he tells Michael that if there was any difference in the way he treated him compared to his younger son Peter (Liam Aiken), it was because he saw too much of himself in Michael. He was afraid that if he let Michael in, he would doom him to repeat the cycle he couldn’t break.
Yet, the circumstances of the plot demand that Mike refuse to walk away from the life that cost him his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son. Even as he’s trying to keep Michael safe, he’s driven by a cold, calculated impulse to remove anyone who might harm either of them from the equation. One of the best sequences in the film features Mike emerging from the shadows to gun down an entire carload of gangsters in the midst of a torrential downpour. It’s all rain machines and squibs and heavy trenchcoats and, at the end, the figure that emerges from the dark is none other than Tom Hanks, the nicest guy in Hollywood, looking frightening not just because of his murderous eyes, but because of the regret contained within them.
Because it’s Hanks holding the gun, it’s easy for us to understand not just the regret of moments like that, but the motivation. By this point in his career, we’d seen him lost in space in Apollo 13, lost on a deserted island in Cast Away and lost in the emotional thickets built by circumstance in Saving Private Ryan. We’d seen Hanks with his back to the wall, but we’d also seen him play the dutiful, loving father in Sleepless in Seattle and the man whose lean toward love forced him to put cynicism aside in You’ve Got Mail. He’d done yearning and loss already, but he’d also done conviction and compromise, and it’s etched all into his desire in this film to make a better world for the one family member he has left. That parental impulse to want a better life for your children is written all over Hanks’ face throughout Road to Perdition. He’s one of our finest actors in part because he’s a joy to watch when he’s simply thinking his way through a scene, playing the big questions behind his eyes and in the set of his jaw.
Because Mike Sullivan is a man of few words, we see him doing that a lot in Perdition, whether it’s from behind the wheel of a car or from behind the barrel of a Tommy gun. He’s playing out the paradox of saving his son from violence through more violence, and because he’s Tom Hanks, he does it without ever truly losing that twinkle in his eye. We don’t know that he’ll succeed, or that he’ll even make the right choices, but we know that he will try. That ability to convey a sense of trying, of living even in the harshest moments, is what makes Hanks one of our finest actors. He can imbue even the hardest of men with real humanity, and that makes Road to Perdition an unforgettable demonstration of the depth of his craft.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.