Counter-casting in Road to Perdition – Dan Norman

Dan Norman is a recent graduate of English Literature at The University of Manchester, UK. He is a full-time writer with Sonder contributing regularly to the Film Section.

Counter-casting in Road to Perdition.

Tom Hanks has a gun

More than anything else, Road to Perdition (2002) is remembered as being the film in which Hanks plays a professional killer. Most of the critical discussion of the film—Sam Mendes’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut American Beauty (1999)centres around this casting. What often goes overlooked in the focus on Hanks is how counter-intuitive the casting is for nearly every one of the film’s major roles, as Road to Perdition is filled with stars playing hugely against type.

Paul Newman’s signature roles came decades before those of Hanks, and his screen persona was never as wholesome or innocent as Hanks (few in the history of cinema have been). Newman tended towards antiheroes – Butch Cassidy, Luke Jackson, Gondorff. All are charming underdogs, and all are characters the audience roots for, but they are also—however unjustly in the movie’s logic—on the wrong side of the law. Whereas an archetypal Hanks role might be the good soldier (Saving Private Ryan, 1998) or the good astronaut (Apollo 13, 1995) these are both public service roles, on the side of authority and government.[1] Newman in his most popular roles is an outlaw, or at least fighting authority (Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Verdict (1982), Slap Shot (1977)).

By this metric, his performance as John Rooney in Road to Perdition shouldn’t be as surprising as Hanks’ casting as Michael Sullivan. Rooney operates outside the law, and has made a major success of himself, a figure of power and wealth in the community. However, Rooney is the antithesis of someone like Luke Jackson, who rebels against a corrupt system. Rooney is the embodiment of a corrupt system, the patriarch of a crime family, and one who is motivated by selfish gain. Newman’s characters usually had a moral centre – however skewed. When pushed to the limit they would do the honourable thing – they only chose to behave the way they did because the world was against them. When seen on screen, even when appearing to be in the wrong, we could assume Newman would be on the side of the angels by the film’s end. This trust is manipulated in Road to Perdition, as Newman’s paternal John Rooney convinces those in his inner circle that he’s an honourable man, while being willing to murder anyone as soon as they become inconvenient – seen in his pursuit of Sullivan. This is what happens when a Newman character is unable to retrieve his moral compass, already entrenched in murder and corruption.

Paul Newman has regrets

If Hanks was one of the world’s biggest actors at the time of filming, and Newman one of the previous generation’s most beloved leading men, then in 2002, Jude Law was widely considered to be one of the stars of the future. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Enemy at the Gates (2001), and A.I (2001) all preceded Road to Perdition and it seemed he was being situated as a Hollywood leading actor for years to come. His character in Road to Perdition is not a Hollywood leading actor role. He makes his first appearance halfway through the movie, playing Harlen Maguire, the killer tracking Sullivan and son. A killer who takes perverse pleasure in death, snapping photos of corpses, apt to fly into furious rage. He spends a lot of his time staring, saying very little, making Maguire a character that strips Jude Law of the boyish charm that is his comfort zone. His character is very much a loner but, unlike Law’s roles in A.I or Alfie (2004), Maguire offers up no illusion to being a social creature, unnerving anyone who comes into contact with him. It’s a very masterfully controlled, atypical performance by Law who makes the character grotesque without the performance ever appearing self-conscious.

Jude Law stares

Daniel Craig’s name stands out on the cast list more now, over a decade since Road to Perdition’s release, than it would have done at the time. Pre-Casino Royale (2006), pre-Layer Cake (2004), pre-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Craig didn’t really have a “type” to be subverted in 2002, far less recognisable a face than Hanks, Newman or Law. So perhaps it is luck that his role as Connor Rooney ends up as a total inversion of his most iconic role, or perhaps it proves that there was a deliberate misdirection going on throughout the casting of Road to Perdition. Connor Rooney is a man born into power, the son of a respected crime lord, who acts like an entitled brat – quick to anger, and jealous of his more revered adopted brother. He acts out of cowardice and spite, a nasty echo of 007 gone rogue, killing Sullivan’s wife and pre-teen son, while sending Sullivan into an ambush. After Sullivan’s escape, Connor spends the majority of the film in hiding, protected by his father. His ineptitude even reaches to his embezzlement from his father, who is aware but turns a blind eye. His greed sets off the chain of events which lead to Sullivan taking down the Rooney empire. Connor Rooney skewers the trope of the noble professional killer—embodied by James Bond for decades—so completely, that the fact he’s played by Daniel Craig gives the film an extra subversive punch. Craig, who has never been shy to point out Bond’s character flaws, must appreciate the irony even more than most.

Daniel Craig has a cigarette

So far so good. Paul Newman’s paternity and persona as a good-hearted rebel subverts the usual ‘Godfather’ role in gangster film. Jude Law’s standard smooth-talking makes his creepy killer’s lack of speech even more off-putting. Our retrospective knowledge of Daniel Craig as the man who will be Bond makes the role of Connor Rooney a critique of cinema’s portrayal of professional killers. But then we come full circle, and return to Hanks.

Cast as Michael Sullivan – the ruthless thug at the centre of the story – Hanks’ performance is good, and has to be for the film to ultimately stand any chance. However, roughly two-thirds of the way in, the film itself begins to undermine his performance, reminding the audience they are watching Hanks. As part of Michael Sullivan’s journey, he begins to bond with his son, and the way in which the film chooses to represent this is by having father teach son how to drive, in order to assist him with bank heists. This is followed by a comic montage of this skill being put into action. In the script, this would likely have seemed no problem—a brief lightening of tone to help the audience through a gloomy film—however on-screen it jars with Hanks’ persona and throws the film off-kilter.

The problem is that these comic moments are far too close to the roles we are used to seeing Hanks in, and it undoes the good work Hanks has done up to this point distancing himself from his cinematic past. The character of Michael Sullivan becomes goofier in a manner that suddenly seems out of character for the man established in the first half of the film, but in keeping with Hanks’ regular roles. Possibly these moments in the script were what inspired the producers to select Hanks in the first place, but in the finished film it plays as a sort of compromise for the viewers who wanted to see Hanks be Hanks for a scene or two, and undoes the film’s momentum.

Newman + Hanks

It’s no failing of Hanks’ ability – his portrayal of F.B.I agent Carl Hanratty in the same year’s Catch Me If You Can (2002), provides evidence of his ability to play outwardly dour characters. In Catch Me If You Can however, the film’s lighter tone allows for these comedic moments without Hanks jeopardising the integrity of the character he’s already spent half a film setting up. It’s difficult to blame the moment on the script either – it’s very possible the moment would have played much better with a different actor, one whose persona was more easily-ignored than Hanks. But now, and even in 2002, Hanks has been a huge star for decades, whose persona has spilled over from movies to chat shows and music videos. It doesn’t take much to be reminded of this personality, so familiar to most of us, which is why Hanks has to be at such pains to cover it up for the first two-thirds of the film. Two or three decades from now even, I imagine the moment won’t be so distracting to viewers, able to reflect on this period in Hanks’ career from greater distance. They may also find it easier to ignore that Hanks’ moustache is the same style as the one he grew for his role as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks (2013), an unfortunate parallel for the Disney corporation. For a generation of movie-goers that have grown up with Tom Hanks being an affable, goofy, fatherly presence however, it is hard enough asking them to shake off those preconceptions once, without asking them to do it again partway through the film.

Four of the five biggest roles in Road to Perdition then are cast against type, which is surely more than coincidence. The only major part not counter-cast is that of Sullivan’s adolescent son, the role of Michael Sullivan Jr. going to Tyler Hoechlin in his third credited role. It is difficult to think of another film that commits so completely to this idea of counter-casting – by its nature a technique that can easily backfire. The intention may have simply been nothing more than to lure talented actors in with the promise of parts they wouldn’t usually get to play, and then seeing what unpredictability their casting brings to the role. For the vast majority of the film, this counter-casting works, which makes the sudden reversion back to Hanks’ friendly persona all the more unnecessary.

The uneasy tone struck at this point shows just how precarious counter-casting is, and how increasingly difficult it becomes the higher-profile the star. Newman—once as big and recognisable a star as Hanks—is now able to more easily shake his cinematic legacy, upon aging out of Hollywood leading man roles. Law—not quite there yet, with the industry still finding out what he could do—is free to experiment, and prove his acting ability with a completely atypical performance. It is not impossible to imagine Hanks playing the Newman role, if the film had been made three decades later. When reflecting on Hanks’ rise to the top – films such as Big (1988), Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994) are each examples of significant departures from the roles he’d been playing up until that point. It is only in retrospect—trying to place a narrative on his career—that we notice a pattern. Once the public are paying enough attention to place that narrative upon a career, it becomes a much more challenging task to successfully adjust those limitations. Catch Me If You Can does this in its way, by not moving the goalposts too far, too quickly and building room for conventional Hanks moments into the character. Road to Perdition casts a massive star, and then demands a massive departure, already a risky game, reliant upon your star giving an unimpeachable performance. The montage with the driving all too clearly shows the script and casting working at cross-purposes. In this moment the film slips from the maker’s fingers, Michael Sullivan turns into Tom Hanks, and the character’s credibility is gone.

[1] Perhaps why he was so well-cast as a cowboy in the Toy Story (1995-2013) films – interestingly enough a role for which Newman was reportedly considered

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