Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition, based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, is a lame film, I suppose, in many ways, but I don’t think it merits the critical derision that it has received point-blank. To be sure, the story is farfetched—unbelievable, really, and the style is both selfconscious and inflated (as was the case with Mendes’s first film, American Beauty, 1999). Moreover, the narrative framing must elude anyone’s literal comprehension, for a 12-year-old voice speaks for the man that the narrating boy (presumably) becomes, referring to his boyhood experiences, and experiences that came after, in the past tense. The boy, Michael Sullivan, Jr., even says something that likely isn’t so: he claims his confrontation with his father’s killer was the last time that he held a gun. A boy who was twelve in 1931 America would have likely carried a gun fighting in World War II. But “literal comprehension” becomes irrelevant here, as the film is frozen in myth. It stills time to the aching point of an experience shared by a father and son during six adventurous weeks in the winter of 1931.
First things first. The protagonist of this film is not who at first glance it appears to be. The central character of Road to Perdition is not Michael Sullivan, Jr., whose mother and younger brother are killed in their home by the self-serving son of regional Irish mob boss John Rooney, Connor Rooney, who in fact was gunning for Michael Jr., after the latter witnessed an internal mob killing he and Michael Sr. executed. Rather, the central figure is Michael Sullivan, Sr., who experiences a delayed education of the affections; now that they have been thrown together in a life-and-death situation, through the agency of his son he learns how to be a father for the first time. On the road, both in flight from the mob to which the father belonged and on a mission to avenge the murders of his wife and younger son, Michael Sr. opens up, for the first time, to the son whose life he is now desperate to protect—a son he has heretofore pushed away for fear that the boy, so eerily like him, would go down the same road to perdition he chose in order to raise his family from poverty and provide for them nicely: the possibility that working for John Rooney offered.
Michael Sr., an executioner so skilled he is known as the Angel of Death, is an evil man—a man steeped in spilt blood from countless cold-blooded murders. As Tom Hanks (à la Olivier, with a false nose) brilliantly plays him, he is a man beyond all redemption, whose Roman Catholicism and patient, dutiful wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, eloquent in a small role), provide the grounding that enables him to rationalize his totally evil existence. Beyond redemption, and yet redeemed by his son in their six weeks on the road: this is the paradox at the soft heart of this sentimental film. There is irony, too, for the spirited and highly adaptable intelligence Michael Sr. demonstrates as he twists and turns both to keep his son and himself alive and to track down Connor Rooney, now being hidden away by Rooney’s father, suggests that he might easily have gone as far, even farther, down some legal road in the American economy. But the central paradox trumps this irony, providing a view of Michael Sr. as morally elastic: a father, after all. To penetrate his surviving son’s thick and guilt-ridden head, he asserts paternal authority perhaps for the first time in their lives, yelling at the boy with a fierceness like a laser to the soul. Now that there’s nothing to hide (i.e., Michael Jr. now knows what Michael Sr. does for a living), he opens up to the boy, sharing intimate conversation. And, in the one hilarious passage of an otherwise glum and grim film, Michael Sr. teaches Michael Jr. how to drive their vehicle so that the boy can assist him in their joint venture to survive and prevail. We watch the familiar humanization of evil right before our eyes. This doesn’t eradicate the evil—Michael Sr. remains to the finish a vicious man,—but it suggests two possibilities: that familial feelings can co-exist with evil promptings (thus it’s conceivable, say, that George W. Bush really loves his daughters); and, beyond that, but for a different turn or sign any one of us, under certain circumstances, might have gone down Michael Sr.’s road to perdition. Evil, then, isn’t someone’s original calling or state of being; it’s the accumulation of experience as it weighs on and warps the soul.
The film is overloaded with extraneous melodrama. The subplot wherein John Rooney is Michael Sr.’s surrogate father and must choose between Michael and Connor insults our intelligence. Paul Newman’s good acting is insufficient to counter the absurdity of this sentimental goo. Rather, the film is fine when it keeps on track, showing how not only Michael’s son but also a decent, older farming couple, who take in and nurse Michael Sr. back to health after he has been shot, contribute to Michael’s moral education. They also during that brief time give Michael Jr. a home—a home to which he will be able to return once he is completely orphaned. The implication touches the heart: this random couple do what any countless number of decent people would have done. This is antidote to the film’s relentless canvas of monstrous, murderous acts, and, within the action of the film, it is for Michael Sr. partial antidote for the evil impulses that hold his nature in its grip.
Some, including Roger Ebert, have criticized the film for denying the characters free will. On the contrary, the film implies that Michael Sr.’s narrowed “free will” to choose good over evil is the consequence of a choice he made long ago to go down a particular road, and each murderous stop along the way has further sapped this freedom of choice, keeping him on this hellish road. This is a far more complex situation than the film’s detractors suggest, and it’s underscored by the most heated debate between John Rooney and Michael Sr., with stunning irony set in a church basement, when the latter tries to persuade the former to give up his son, Connor. Michael calls Connor a murderer, and Rooney counters that there are only murderers in the room and that the course of their lives was set by their decision to follow this course. Rooney remarks that it’s certainly the case that none of them will ever get to Heaven—a poignant admission from a devout Roman Catholic. Indeed, the film implies also the corruption of the Catholic clergy itself, who aid and abet the mobsters for financial gain, and who would betray in an instant their sacred obligations to further the mob’s cause. Thus, early on, when Michael Sr., pursuing his vengeful mission, gives his son a pistol and tells Michael Jr. to seek help if he doesn’t return within thirty minutes, he warns the boy to go to the local Methodist minister, not Father Callaway. The implication is that, to protect the financial support that the mob tenders the church, the Catholic priest would turn Michael Jr. over to the Rooneys in a heartbeat. Terrifying.
Other, more serious charges have been leveled against the film. The most pressing of these comes from a reviewer I totally respect: J. Hoberman, of the Village Voice, who describes the film as “pulp that aspires to Greek tragedy. The rain machine works overtime in this gloomy tale of Depression-era gangsters as they (and their sons) stalk each other through a sepulchral Chicago and across the bleak Midwest.” I know the feeling, but I would frame it differently, perhaps grasping the perspective of Mendes on this occasion, a British Tocqueville. Isn’t it the point that America is “pulp that aspires to Greek tragedy”? Consider two things. One is America’s romance with black-and-white reductiveness while all the while insisting on the grandness of her endeavors: democracy, manifest destiny, you-name-it. Here, the black-and-white reductiveness is wittily rendered by the black-and-white Lone Ranger book with which Michael Jr. intently occupies himself, searching in it for parallels between its characters and himself and his father. It is also rendered by the black-and-white insertions in this color film and, in frame after frame, the film’s tendency towards black and white and other sober monochromatic presentations. (As in American Beauty, Mendes’s cinematographer is Conrad L. Hall, who won his third Oscar for this, his final film.) At the same time, Michael Sr.’s mission of revenge, which endangers the son he is ostensibly trying to protect, is very grand—this, as antidote to the smallness of his existence. Michael’s life is “pulp that aspires to Greek tragedy,” for this is one way that anonymous Americans can stake a claim to the grand myths of a nation that does a very poor job of invigorating the lives of its people. The other sense in which “pulp that aspires to Greek tragedy” describes the America that in fact Mendes is attempting to describe involves America’s romance with violence—violence so historically deeply rooted that, for the sake of its contrary self-image, America is always trying to rationalize it where it cannot deny it. (Denial has always been America’s first line of defense.) These rationalizations again lead America, and Americans, to those myths that insist on America’s being a special case, a nation with which Providence peculiarly concerns itself. Thus its horrible aspects—slavery, for instance—aren’t interpreted in a nuts-and-bolts way as revelatory of the greed and unconscionable cruelty of networks of individuals founded in indecent impulses and prejudices; they are seen as “tragic,” as though America isn’t responsible for America, as though whatever is awful about America is out of America’s hands. Mind you, actual tragedy (as a literary form) is all about responsibility and about taking responsibility, but America has a tendency to sentimentalize everything, including tragedy. Yes, everything we see in Road to Perdition is “pulp that aspires to . . . tragedy,” but that’s not a fault of the film but, rather, part of the film’s vision of America.
Mendes, unfortunately, can’t resist sentimentalizing Michael Sr.’s death at the hands of Harlen Maguire (Jude Law, bringing scarcely anything to the role), a freelancing photographer of murder victims who enhances his workload by doubling as a hired killer. The Angel of Death has met another Angel of Death, and both in fact kill one another in a poorly devised scene of Woo-goo. (John Woo, that is.) The scene is preposterous to begin with, because the vacated setting, Michael’s sister-in-law’s place in Perdition, doesn’t instantly alert him that a killer is afoot on the premises. (We instantly realize this.) Moreover, we are reminded here of the one other inconceivable thing Michael has done, that is to say, not warning his wife’s sister, Sarah, that Maguire knows he is on his way to her place. This oversight has likely resulted in her pointless execution and, if she had a family, in theirs. Only the family dog, whom Michael Jr. adopts, remains on the grounds. Now Michael Sr. also has fallen victim to Maguire, through the same carelessness, unless one opts for the impossible notion that he is embracing his own end even at the expense of orphaning and endangering his son. The whole scene is a mess, then: a mess built on another mess. And while it rounds out a thematic point, that Michael Jr. can’t shoot dead Maguire, showing that he isn’t as much like his father as his father once feared, the messiness tends to lose the ironic parallel that Mendes has drawn between the mob and the tabloid press. Indeed, David Self’s script falters on a number of occasions, and Thomas Newman’s lugubrious music accounts for another of the film’s defects.
I have not yet mentioned a wonderful performance—the very best one in the film, perhaps. (Tyler Hoechlin is no more than adequate as Michael Jr.) Stanley Tucci is extraordinary as Frank Nitti, a calm, practiced, management-type Chicago mobster. The supporting-actor Oscar nomination that went to Paul Newman should have gone to Tucci instead.
The credits list Anthony LaPaglia as Al Capone. Just try finding him.
A boy who was twelve in 1931 America, however, would have likely carried a gun fighting in World War II.
But it’s not certain. Don’t assume too much.