We're aware from the beginning that this is to be a tragic tale. A sense of doom pervades the drunken wake being held in the mansion home of John Rooney (Paul Newman), the elegant patriarch of an extended family of Irish bootleggers, who ply their trade and kill off their competitors in and around Chicago during the height of that social experiment/criminal madness known as Prohibition. Rooney's son Connor (Daniel Craig) is his apparent heir but a bit of a problem, always drinking too much, saying or doing the wrong thing. It is his "surrogate son," Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), with whom the old man shares a deeper emotional bond and on whom he relies to do most of his dirty work.

Sullivan is a hit man, and a good one, for which he is well-rewarded. Even in the midst of the Depression, he and his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young sons, Michael, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken), live in a big house in the town's nicest neighborhood. On the surface, the family enjoys a normal life, but young Michael can't help wondering what Dad does when he goes out at night, packing guns. Overcome with curiosity, the 12-year-old hides out in the car as Sullivan and Connor go off on a mission to get a rebellious gang member back in line. But in the ensuing bitter confrontation, Connor loses control, leading to a sudden explosion of murder and mayhem. The boy sees it all, and what's worse for young Michael, Connor sees him.

Despite Sullivan's assurances that his son will stay mum, Connor is convinced the only way to keep the kid quiet is to kill him. However, it is the youngest child, Peter, who's at home with his mother when Connor's hired gun comes to call. Young Michael discovers the bodies and is wracked with guilt and grief. But his father's own grief quickly turns to fury and then to panic, as he realizes Connor will soon know he has killed the wrong son. With both their lives in danger now, the two remaining members of the Sullivan family have to get out of town--and fast.

Their first stop is Chicago, where Sullivan seeks help from Al Capone's right-hand man, Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), who welcomes him warmly but clearly has other, conflicting allegiances. Sullivan knows he can no longer turn to John Rooney, his 'father' and longtime protector, who is now bound to protect Connor, his own flesh and blood. Totally on his own, then, the formerly favored one begins to plot his diabolical revenge on the Rooney family. But Sullivan also has to figure out a way to save his flesh and blood, and find a new life for Michael, Jr., away from the dangerous criminal world he has brought him into. That's when he remembers the relatives who live in Perdition, an aptly named hamlet on the shores of Lake Michigan.

But before Sullivan can get his son there, they spend six weeks on the run, chasing and being chased throughout the Midwest. After a particularly close call, they find a temporary haven with a childless couple who live on an isolated farm, and it is here that both father and son finally find and articulate the love they have for each other. John Rooney, meanwhile, realizes he has lost--or perhaps never had--the love of both of his "sons," as well as his surrogate grandsons, the Sullivan boys. Wisely, as it turns out, Rooney prepares for the worst.

It's somewhat of a shock to realize that the compellingly clever and complex plot of Road to Perdition is taken from a graphic novel, a fairly new literary genre (evolved from the comic books of an earlier era) which many of us are inclined to dismiss as trashy and simpleminded fare. In this case, that's obviously not true. Road to Perdition deals with classic human themes--fathers and sons, revenge and justice--but they are not played out in expected ways. In fact, several dramatic incidents in this movie are quite startling. And all of the performances are truly stunning.

Hanks and Newman are so good, so strong, they seem to invent new archetypes--playing totally against any character type either has played before. Jude Law also puts a brave and brilliant spin on his portrayal of Maguire, a creepy photographer who specializes in shooting pictures of dead bodies--usually after he has actually shot them dead. Maguire is the one sent to track down Sullivan, and the scene in which they finally meet is so full of ghostly beauty and horror it almost becomes unbearable to watch. And unbearable not to.

The veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who won an Academy Award the last time he worked with director Sam Mendes (on American Beauty), is responsible for the hauntingly effective lighting and framing here. But credit for the authentic and lovely look of the film must also go to production designer Dennis Gassner. This is no amber-hued memory movie; we're looking at Depression-era America, circa 1931, as vibrantly alive now as it was then. Of course, it is Mendes who is most responsible for breathing such vibrant life into what could have been just another gangster story. All told, this is the grandest American movie--mythically and tragically grand--since Mendes' last (and first) film, the Academy Award-winning American Beauty.

--Shirley Sealy