Tom Hanks makes an unusual actor to cast as a gangster and Sam Mendes makes an unusual choice of director. Mendes made his name with American Beauty, an incredibly tricky movie to categorise and Tom Hanks has of course taken on many, many iconic roles. I feel this is a movie worth a retrospective as it seems to be a bit of a forgotten gem. It’s a moving character piece which is wonderfully shot and at times it had me in floods of tears with its themes of obligations sin, family and trust.
Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) narrates the film as an Irish-American child in 1931, Rock Island (a very unusual place to set a gangster movie) and we see it all from his perspective and at one time quite literally from his eye view. He seems to come from a typical and quite well off American family but he and his younger brother don’t know what their father does for a living until one day he finds out with devastating consequences which kicks off the whole movie. What is interesting is Michael Sullivan Sr’s (Tom Hanks) relationships. He’s a mob enforcer for John Rooney (Paul Newman in his last on screen role) and has an interesting dynamic with his two sons, one of which is adopted.
The film is wonderfully filmed with a huge variety of shots and styles from ultra-close ups of characters to long pans. There is a particularly good shot of Sullivan Sr in a hotel where Al Capone is based, with a long shot tracking him between pillars in a an Art Nuevo hotel. This combined with a great soundtrack really catches the mood. There’s this amazing gun fight in the rain, captured in slow motion and completely silent. The length for which it is silent is surprising in the same way the last shot is silent except for the sound of the sea, although to say more would spoil the story. It’s basically a road trip and gangster movie all-in-one. It is also has a strong visual theme in its use of lighting and colouration as there is a lot of rain, snow and cold Midwestern American weather, which is used to great effect throughout alongside the dark tinge from street lights and windows, making it visually very strong. Everything has a slow pace which allows you to visually soak up each scene as even the gun fights have slow pace compared with most movies with long lingering shots focusing on guns, arms and faces.
This movie is big on its themes of commitment such as those the characters hold to family and the Lord and the place of family and community. Along with the religious nature of the characters, this makes it an introspective movie as there is an awareness both of fate and the fact that all the central characters bar the child are murderers and going to hell which acts a major motivation for Sullivan Sr. to get him away from all the violence of his past.
Perhaps one of the reasons I particularly like this movie is that Sullivan Sr. looks rather like my own father, especially when he is unshaven and the fact that even though it is technically a gangster movie set in 1931, that is the least important part of the movie. What’s more important is its central themes regarding the consequences of violence, of fathers and sons and their relationships connected by the visual motif of rain. In some ways it can be considered the anti-gangster movie as the focus is so much on other areas and ideas. One slight caveat is that I do struggle a bit seeing Hanks as a plausible gangster because he is always so nice and doesn’t seem the cold-blooded killer type but I imagine that is intentional. On a final note, I was very surprised that this is based on a comic. Any good?
Retrospective by Harry Riedl