Drama Index



The Road to Perdition, 2002. Directed by Sam Mendes. Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason-Leigh,

Synopsis: Michael Sullivan is a family man with an unusual profession. He is the chief enforcer for bootleg mobster John Rooney. The year is 1931. Rooney rules Rock Island, Illinois like some kind of enlightened despot. At the wake of one of his lieutenants, the deceased's brother says that Rooney is "God in this town." Sullivan has always been like a son to Rooney, much to the consternation of Rooney's biological son, Connor. Connor is a disappointment to his father. He is greedy and psychotic. And he is jealous of the relationship between his father and Michael Sullivan. Sullivan's own sons don't have any idea of what he does for a living. They see him as some vaguely defined hero who "goes on missions" for Rooney. All of that changes one night when Michael Sullivan, jr. witnesses his father at work. Sent with Connor to quiet down a disgruntled underboss, Connor shoots him through the head and Sullivan, sr. guns down the remaining men with a tommy gun. Connor uses this as a means of driving a wedge between Sullivan and his father. He arranges to have Sullivan killed on his next job, and, meanwhile, kills Sullivan's wife and youngest son himself. Sullivan survives his own ambush, and Michael, jr. isn't home when Connor comes to call. Sullivan has no recourse but to leave town with his son in tow. On the road, they dodge Harlan Maguire, an assassin who takes photographs of his victims for the tabloid newspapers, all the while looking for a way to take their own revenge and to extricate themselves from their predicament....

Turning Japanese: The source material for The Road to Perdition is Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner's comic book of the same name. The comic book is, in turn, an Americanized version of Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf and Cub. So it comes as no real surprise that other elements of the film are drawn from Japanese traditions, too. Director Sam Mendes has taken a pulp fiction premise and, like Kurosawa or Kon Ichikawa or Seijun Suzuki, has aestheticized it for all it is worth. In two particular instances, the film seems to be drawn from specific Japanese sources: The shootout in the rain, filmed silent, simultaneously recalls the battle in the rain in Seven Samurai, the silent battle in Ran, and the battle in the snow in Kihachi Okamoto's Samurai Assassin. The end of the movie, in which red blood is contrasted with stark white walls seems drawn from Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter. The film as a whole plays like a samurai art film crossed with a sixties-era yakuza film. Like those films, The Road to Perdition favors formal composition of the film frame over all other elements.

Black with Something More than Night: Of course, taking pulp fiction material and putting it through an aesthetic filter is also a hallmark of film noir. In this regard, The Road to Perdition is true to its own cultural roots, too. Cinematographer Conrad Hall's finely burnished murk is as close to the black and white visual aesthetic of film noir as anyone has ever come in a color film. The predominant color other than neutral shades of gray and brown is blood red. Visually, it's a lovely film that recalls not only Out of the Past or Laura, but also the paintings of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. The scene at a diner in the middle of nowhere combines the rural American melancholia of "Christina's World" crossed with the urban American melancholia of "The Nighthawks." The formidable visual appeal functions in exactly the way the best photography in film noir functions (the work of John Alton, say, or William Daniels): the style IS content. The darkness and the light are visual metaphors. Along with the visuals, The Road to Perdition shares an ambient mood of doom with film noir. Fate has put its finger on virtually every character in the film in the best tradition of Detour or D.O.A. The road to Perdition is a one way street in this movie.

Performances: Films noir were B-pictures, intended as entertainments to fill the bottom slots of double features. This picture is an A-list "prestige" picture with lofty aspirations. Certainly, the visuals have an appointment with destiny. The performances inhabiting The Road to Perdition are generally fine. Tom Hanks gives a nicely nuanced performance that is both well within the cinematic anima he's staked out for himself and a radical departure at the same time. Michael Sullivan is an ice-cold killer, but the film cannily places all but one of the murders he commits out of the film frame. Paul Newman finally has a role worthy of him. It seems like ages since he's been in a film that gave him anything to work with. His John Rooney is locked into a Greek tragedy and Newman's steely blue eyes are filled with the light of a trapped animal. Daniel Craig's performance as spoiled psychopath Connor Rooney is broadly pitched, but not overly so. Tyler Hoechlin as Michael, jr. is effective as a son whose image of his father is violently shattered. His sullen disposition throughout the movie works well enough, although it is not among the best performances given by child actors. Jude Law's turn in this movie seems gimmicky on the surface, with his bad teeth and Charlie Chaplin walk, but there is a coiled madman beneath this surface, which comes to the fore in the film's closing sequences. The Charlie Chaplin walk is an interesting touch, since the film has so little dialogue and it's most striking sequences are filmed without sound. This movie would work quite nicely as a silent movie.

Best Intentions: Where The Road to Perdition departs from its roots in film noir is its insistence that there is a redemption somewhere down the line. The film pursues this notion through its primary relationships between fathers and sons. John and Connor Rooney are damned by their relationship. Rooney sees some hope of redemption in Michael Sullivan, his surrogate "good" son, but comes to realize that this is a false hope, too, as Sullivan turns on his "father" through the machinations of Connor. Rooney is bound too closely to his bad son by actual blood to favor Sullivan, and it tears him apart and seals his fate and Sullivan's fate, too. "There are two murderers in this room," Rooney tells Sullivan, "and one thing is for sure: neither one of us will get into heaven." Sullivan seeks his redemption elsewhere, and finds it in his own son, Michael, jr. There is a risk, the film suggests, that going on the road with his father will taint Michael, jr., as the elder Sullivan is forced to do bad things to ensure their survival. When, at the end of the film, Michael, jr. is confronted with the task of shooting Harlan Maguire, he can't pull the trigger. He's NOT like his father, and his father finds a small piece of redemption in knowing that his son will grow up without the stain of his own sins. I have to admit that I was resistant to the overall arc of the film at the outset, but the careful attention to craft evidenced throughout the film eventually lured me in. There is a scene at a funeral at the beginning of the film where the casket is packed with ice. Michael asks his father about the ice, which is melting as they speak. "It's to preserve the body," he says. The film begins with ice and snow. This is all washed away by the rain in the mid-section of the film. The film ends at the edge of water. Sullivan begins the film as an ice-cold killer, an thaws throughout the movie. But since his road takes him to perdition, his own state of grace hasn't a snowball's chance....