With Road to Perdition (2002) filmmaker Sam Mendes (American Beauty) delivers a brooding gangster drama – about fathers and sons, damnation and redemption – that continually defies expectations.
Movie good guys Tom Hanks and Paul Newman play blood-stained Depression-era gangsters. Suave Jude Law shows up as a creepy, Weegee-type photographer of dead bodies who runs an assassination business on the side. And our Midwestern winter has rarely looked so cold, wet, and miserable.
But then Road to Perdition is one of the few gangster dramas of the last 30 years to break free of the shadow of The Godfather. Superbly photographed and staged by Mendes with a series of riveting set pieces, this film creates its own world, its own style, its own detached-but-compelling ambience.
Twelve-year-old Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) doesn't know his father all that well. Michael Sr. (Hanks) is a shadowy and mysterious figure who comes home late, leaves at odd hours, and spends lots of time tinkering in the garage of their Rock Island, Illinois, home.
That's where Michael Sr. keeps the main tool of his trade – a Thompson submachine gun. Michael Sullivan is the chief enforcer for the notorious Rooney family. As a boy he was taken in by John Rooney (Newman), a charismatic but ruthless crime boss, and reared alongside Rooney's own son Connor (Daniel Craig).
Michael's loyalty to Rooney is absolute and unwavering, and his feelings are reciprocated by the old man. None of which goes unnoticed by Connor, a quick-tempered screw-up who feels shut out of his father's affections and, like the biblical Cain, decides to eliminate his "brother."
(Note: Craig, so charismatic in his James Bond persona, plays Connor as a disgusting creep. Now that’s acting.)
Typically, Connor blows it, killing Sullivan's wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and youngest son (Liam Aiken) but missing the two Michaels. Now the father and son are on the run – Boss Rooney has reluctantly concluded that he must side with his blood no matter what. The only way for Michael to ensure his son's survival is to eliminate the men looking for them.
In other words, he's got to kill the entire Rooney gang.
By centering the story on Michael Jr., by having us learn ugly truths about his father even as the boy does, screenwriter David Self (adapting the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner) captures the moral ambiguity at the heart of this tale.
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In the final analysis, Perdition asks whether the intense love Sullivan and Rooney feel toward their respective sons can possibly transcend the evil they have perpetrated. To its credit, the film never tries to answer that question.
But then Mendes, whose American Beauty was marked by a wickedly satiric streak, seems determined to let us draw our own conclusions this time around. Most directors, for example, would sentimentalize the older and younger Sullivan as they finally bond.
Not here. Hanks' killer remains pretty much a mystery to his boy and to us. He's never been much of a father, and he's not transformed overnight into Mr. Sensitivity. His specialty, after all, is homicide.
There's some unforgettable stuff here. Mendes' knack for finding an understated way to suggest the depth of relationships is quietly breathtaking. There's a moment early on when Sullivan and Rooney share a four-handed tune at the piano; without a word it speaks volumes about how they feel about each other.
And Sullivan's rub-out of the Rooney gang – with all sounds eliminated save for Thomas Newman's dirgelike score and the splashing of a torrential downpour – brings to mind the famous siege of the castle in Kurosawa's Ran.
If Road to Perdition has a fault – and I'm not sure it really is a fault – it may be in the filmmakers' refusal to give us a big emotional catharsis. The performances are perfectly modulated, without any of the histrionics typical of actors on Oscar patrol.
Everyone concerned seems to have agreed that in this case less would be more.
They were right.
Other films in the series “The Man Who Would Be Bond”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- November 3: Casino Royale (2006) Rated PG-13
- November 10: Road to Perdition (2002) Rated R
- November 17: Layer Cake (2004) Rated R
- November 24: Munich (2005) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- November 5: Quantum of Solace (2008) Rated PG-13
- November 12: Sylvia (2003) Rated R
- November 19: Infamous (2006) Rated R
- November 26: Defiance (2008) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.