Road to Perdition

An Irish rendition of The Godfather, Road to Perdition is a dark, grim, and brooding film about a man who took the wrong road long ago. Now he stands at a crossroads beside his 12-year-old son. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman for Irish mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman), his surrogate father, in Depression Era Illinois. Keeping his home life separate from his vocation gets difficult as his two boys, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), and Peter (Liam Aiken), become curious about what their father does for a living. The foundation Michael has based his life upon is destroyed when he comes into conflict with his boss’s son, Connor (Daniel Craig), a weak, jealous, ambitious man. That’s when Michael finds himself and his namesake in the crosshairs of a macabre assassin named McGuire (Jude Law). Father and son strike out for Aunt Sarah’s house, a lakeside cottage in the town of Perdition. But the road to Perdition is long and twisting, with many loops and bends, few of them pleasant. Yet, along the way, there is a grim bonding between the unbending, humorless father, and the boy who longs for his love and approval.

This movie is as much about fathers and sons and the choices they make, as it is about mobsters. John Rooney truly loves both his sons: the biological one who is weak and without parameters, and the surrogate son who is faithful and strong. Yet the mobster chooses the son of his flesh, whose character he despises, over the son of his heart, whom he respects. He must stand against Michael in all his terrible power, to save the life of his natural son. On the other hand, Michael Sullivan truly loves Rooney, the only father he ever knew, but he will go through hell and the mob to give his own son a chance grow up and perhaps choose a better road. The most telling lines spoken in this movie are between Rooney and Sullivan, alone in the basement of the church where Rooney has just been praying. The two fathers grieve for all that has been lost, and for all that can yet be lost, and confront each other in desperation. Speaking not only of the two of them, but of his son, Connor, and the whole mob family, Rooney says:

“You know none of us will see Heaven.”

“But Michael can,” Sullivan replies.

This is a movie where fathers and sons find that the road to Perdition will take them farther than they want to go, and the exit signs are faint and few.

Warning: Though Road to Perdition is tight, well-crafted, and excellently portrayed, it is rated R for violence and language for a good reason. This is a movie about violent men on a dark (but very real) side of life during the Great Depression. There are scenes that are very bloody and some that are macabre, as one of the characters has a sick hitch in his otherwise even sicker psyche. The redeeming quality of this gritty movie is that it does not portray gangsters as some kind of anti-heroes, or the gangster life as exciting or desirable. It does show the misery, and inevitable conclusion of living by the sword.

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2 thoughts on “Road to Perdition

  1. An excellent, intelligent review. Regarding one of the qualities that I believe makes this a superior gangster film is, as you astutely pointed out, that the protagonists are not portrayed as anti-heroes. In this day and age when criminal behavior is rewarded with worshipful celebrity, to have the courage to create a film in which an audience is asked to observe the behavior of, but not identify with, the character of the main protagonists is a provocative move. Ever since “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, violence seems to be inextricably paired with glamor in Hollywood films (a subject I’ve spoken about much in the past so I won’t bore with a dissertation) and we have seen this in the continued rise of not only crowd pleasing mayhem but the critical esteem with which, for example, “The Godfather” films and the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese are critically applauded without a word about their dubious roots in antisocial and immoral behavior. The casting of audience favorites Newman and Hanks was, again, a bold move as it further complicated the task of having the audience understand but not sympathize with these brutal characters; something. I believe, the film is entirely successful in achieving and the richer experience for it. We are observing from a more distant stance (the properly methodical rhythms of the film aid enormously in this) but in that position we are able to see and consider the motivations of the characters with honesty, not obscured by a biasing emotional gravitation and in the end, note the inevitable tragedy with a greater sense of clarity; which makes the moment of Michael Sullivan’s victory, when he realizes his son will achieve salvation from his own fallen path, more honestly bittersweet and not the product of dishonest emotional manipulations. A very fine film.

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