LONDON — Two years ago, a movie with a distinctly ambivalent central character was the unlikely winner of the Academy Award for best picture.
Was "American Beauty's" Lester Burnham, the character played by Kevin Spacey, a downtrodden suburban hero, wearied by the shallowness of his materialistic surroundings, or a sleazy, sardonic creep with an unhealthy interest in a girlfriend of his teenage daughter?
Director Sam Mendes, in his first movie, kept audiences intrigued by such questions and did so with style. But he must now surmount a familiar obstacle: his sophomore film.
At first glance, Mendes' "The Road to Perdition," which is scheduled to open in July, could hardly be more different from the contemporary suburban affluence in which "American Beauty" is set. It takes place in Chicago and the Midwest in the Depression era of the 1930s.
But its story revolves around a character of moral complexity to rival Lester Burnham's: Michael Sullivan, a hit man who sets out with his young son on a journey of revenge after members of his family are murdered.
In his office at the Donmar Warehouse, the small London theater he has run with remarkable success for the past 10 years, Mendes discussed his attraction to morally ambivalent lead characters. "[Michael Sullivan] is not a good-hearted hit man," he said flatly. "He's a hit man. He's done bad things and also necessary things. He doesn't explain his actions. As with Kevin Spacey's role in 'American Beauty,' the audience is asked to judge whether at any given time this man is doing good or bad. The film flirts with audience's sympathies in that way. It has no moral absolutes--which is what drew me to the script."
Mendes has himself added to the sense of paradox about this dubious central character. "When I read the script, I said I'd like to pursue it, but I also wanted someone you would never expect to play [Sullivan]," he said. "Because it's much more interesting to cast against type."
They don't come much more against type than Tom Hanks, the nearest thing to an all-around stand-up guy that American movies have produced since the days of James Stewart and Henry Fonda. Hanks is best known for playing essentially decent, even heroic characters, but he leaped at the chance to portray Sullivan, even though he had wanted a long break from filming after the grueling experience of shooting "Cast Away."
"You can't be a slave to the familiarity that the audience has with you," Hanks said, speaking by telephone. "I'm familiar to people, but I think you have to do something to expand the horizons of that familiarity. You can't escape the fact that people know you and have preconceived notions of you, but you have to try and take people places with you they've never been to before. It's a hard thing to do."
Judging by a two-minute trailer for "The Road to Perdition," it's clear that Hanks' character is no angel. "This isn't like Tony Soprano's family, trying to deal with the ethics of whether it's bad or OK to kill someone," Mendes observed. "[In 'Perdition'] that deal was done years ago."
The other strong narrative strand in "The Road to Perdition" is the uneasy relationship between Sullivan and his son, Michael Jr., (played by Tyler Hoechlin), who accompanies him on his vengeful mission. "What isn't clear at first in the story is how much the boy knows about how his father makes his living," Mendes said, "and then what happens when he finds out.
"In part, this story is about the secret world your parents inhabit that you don't have access to. This boy gets access before he's ready, so then it's about how children have to deal with violence, and whether the seeing and watching of violence leads you to become violent yourself. Ultimately, it's about a father saving his son from his own fate."
Hanks, 45, said he too was intrigued by the story's father-son motif. "As can happen with small dysfunctional families, where a lot of things aren't said, one son can be the apple of the father's eye," he noted. "And in this story, there's a developing relationship between the father and son, and you wonder what will happen."
Hanks noted that "Perdition" also features a subtler, surrogate father-son relationship, between his character and that of his mob boss, played by Paul Newman. Mendes described Newman's character as initially benevolent but increasingly sinister.
The film came about after DreamWorks, the studio behind "American Beauty," sent Mendes a script written by David Self ("Thirteen Days"). Self had adapted it from a graphic novel by Max Allen Collins.