I love gangster movies, especially if they’re well acted and written and have high production values. Of these, there have been a-plenty in the past two or three decades. The Godfather Trilogy, The Departed, Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction have rapidly become the standards by which the best gangster dramas are measured; other more recent films like Gangs of New York, Donnie Brasco, and Heat, while not quite approaching the stature of the aforementioned trio of gangster classics, certainly rank among the best of the genre.
Road to Perdition is another, more recent motion picture that may be added to the list of luminary dramas dealing with organized crime. Released in 2002, Road to Perdition is masterfully acted, beautifully written, and gorgeously produced. Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, and Tyler Hoechlin, and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999), Road to Perdition features a superb cast, a thought-provoking and highly original premise, and a story line that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the film’s entire two-hour running time.
Road to Perdition centers on a Prohibition-era, small-town Irish Mafia “family” of bootleggers, run by John Rooney (Newman), an outwardly benevolent, aging paterfamilias whose genteel exterior masks a savage ruthlessness. Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is Rooney’s chief “enforcer.” Sullivan, a stonily quiet, tightly controlled family man, is husband to Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young sons: twelve year-old Michael (Hoechlin) and eight year-old Peter (Liam Aiken.)
Perhaps the most important central theme of Road to Perdition is the examination of father-and-son relationships. At the outset, we witness a distant, aloof relationship between Sullivan and his oldest son Michael; and a much more demonstrative relationship between Sullivan and Peter. There is also a very close relationship between John Rooney and Sullivan – much closer than that between Rooney and his own son and heir not-so-apparent, Connor (played by Daniel Craig). While Michael Sullivan Junior struggles to understand why his father expresses his love for his brother Peter more openly than he does with him, an embittered, middle-aged Connor Rooney seethes with jealously as he watches his father give the senior Michael Sullivan the paternal affection that Connor feels rightfully belongs to him.
How this drama between fathers and sons plays out forms the central theme of the film. At the outset, an inquisitive Michael Junior, curious to know exactly what the father he idolizes does for a living, stows away in the family car, just before his father and Connor take it on a routine “enforcement” mission. Soon, the unsuspecting boy, while hiding, sees his father and Connor commit an act of murder. He’s quickly discovered at the scene by Connor.
This is just the opportunity Connor needs to rid himself of his perceived rival for his father’s affections, and he’s quick to exploit it. After setting up the elder Sullivan for assassination (which Sullivan alertly and adroitly avoids), Connor visits the Sullivan home and murders Sullivan’s wife and son. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong son that Connor kills. Now he must face both the wrath of a grief-stricken Michael Sullivan… and of his own father, John Rooney.
Michael Sullivan and his son quickly leave town, both to hide from the “hit men” that Sullivan sure will come for them, and to plot revenge against the man who slew Sullivan’s wife and son. Meanwhile, John Rooney is faced with a terrible choice: either to surrender his son, whom he despises, to a fate he deserves at the hands of the man he loves like a son; or to save his son, and order the death of the man he loves like a son…
The balance of Road to Perdition is a story of a father and son on the road, and how their relationship develops over a period of weeks. While he plots his revenge against Connor Rooney, Mike Sullivan Senior decides to seek the protection of the Al Capone family in Chicago. Rebuffed by Capone’s chief lieutenant, the urbane Frank Nitti (played by Stanley Tucci), Sullivan heads toward a secret hideaway at Perdition, a small lakeside town in the Midwest. Meanwhile, an eccentric but highly effective “hit man” named Maguire (Jude Law) has been retained to deal with the Michael Sullivans…
When Road to Perdition was first released to theaters, it was billed as “A Triumph!” and as “Tom Hanks Like You’ve Never Seen Him!” I’m usually pretty skeptical of movie trailers, but in this case, I would say they were pretty accurate. Road to Perdition is indeed a triumph on many levels, and Tom Hanks’ performance as Michael Sullivan is nothing short of superb…
…As are all performances. Hanks, normally an amiable and relaxed on-screen presence, plays Michael Sullivan as a man so tightly in control of his inner demons and emotions that he seems likely to explode at any second. Yet, his love for his family, and especially for his surviving son, is always readily apparent. The late, great Paul Newman is equally outstanding as John Rooney, the Irish Mafia chieftain whose reality is summed up in his words: “we are all murderers in this room!!” Daniel Craig is brilliant as the envious, conniving Connor Rooney, and twelve year-old Tyler Hoechlin turns in a remarkable performance as Michael Sullivan’s oldest son, Michael.
Technically, Road to Perdition is a feast for the eyes and ears. The screenplay, adapted by David Self from the graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, is intelligent and thought-provoking. (Having never read the graphic novel, I can’t make any judgments upon how accurately the screenplay reflects the original work.) The sets and costumes reflect a tremendous attention to detail. John L. Williams and Thomas Newman’s musical score is sumptuous and always a perfect compliment to what’s going on the screen. And the late Conrad Hall’s Academy Award winning cinematography gives the movie a beautiful texture.
There is a dank, rain-soaked pessimism, fueled by a resignation that all the characters’ lives are somehow consigned ahead of time to whatever Fate determines, that permeates Road to Perdition. It’s a pessimism that descends into gloominess, even dreariness at times. Yet, despite its outward melancholy, Road to Perdition still manages to retain a sense of optimism in the face of the most horrific of environments in which the characters find themselves. As the film’s end credits rolled, I somehow found myself feeling good about the way Road to Perdition ended, and the overall message it conveyed to me…
THE DVD: The DVD edition of Road to Perdition contains many of the most popular “extras” that people have come to expect: director’s commentary; a “Making of…” documentary; deleted scenes; production notes; and cast and crew notes. One particularly noteworthy feature is a soundtrack for the visually impaired,” where the on-screen actions of the characters are read (very competently, by an uncredited female narrator) between the lines of dialogue.
MY VERDICT: Although Road to Perdition may not appeal to every movie viewer’s tastes, it is an extraordinary film that, in many ways, transcends the typical “gangster movie” genre. Seeing Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in their respective roles is alone worth the price of the DVD. A superbly produced, written, and acted film in every respect. Highly recommended!
Other Movie Reviews by Mike Powers:O Brother, Where Art Thou? ; Apollo 13 ; The 5 Best Movies I’ve Ever Detested ; M*A*S*H ; Gandhi ; Young Frankenstein ; The Apostle ; Amadeus ; Top 10 Movies of All Time – a “Movie Hall of Fame” ; Fiddler on the Roof ; Glory ; Top 10 Epic Movies of All Time ; Patton ; In the Name of the Father ; Immortal Beloved ; The China Syndrome ; Eight Men Out ; Pearl Harbor ; Thirteen Days