Road to Perdition begins and ends with a young boy looking out over Lake Michigan. His voice-over narration in the opening shot leads the way to the lengthy flashback that provides the story line of the film. The camera, however, stares out over the faceless waters with him, as though pondering his inscrutable future with him. His stable world has been shattered. An era has ended. Even more, his own personal compass has been taken from him. What will become of him? Of course, the larger question is what will become of us in our terrifying new world of mindless annihilation? The “perdition” of the title suggests irreparable loss and final condemnation; the imagery of water and light offers a shard of tentative hope amid the wreckage.
Sam Mendes and his screenwriter David Self have thus taken the underlying tragedy of the American Western and disguised it as a gangster film. According to the American foundation myth, during the nation’s relentless march to the Pacific Coast, men of heroic stature, comfortable with unspeakable violence yet laboring under a sense of divine mission, pushed westward to tame the continent. Far removed from the institutions of the East, and even farther removed from Europe, they developed their own rigid codes of conduct. When the project was completed in the last decade of the 19th century and there were no more sunsets to ride into, what was left for these aging gunfighters? They could look out over the Pacific and wonder whether to become shopkeepers or common criminals or living self-parodies in Wild West shows. Whatever their choice for the future, the past that had given them a sense of the self was forever gone.
“Road to Perdition” fittingly then begins in the Old World. Well, almost. As the young Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) stands alone on the shore on a beautiful summer morning, his mind drifts backward, inland, to a traditional Irish wake in his hometown, somewhere in the Middle West. The music, the dance and, yes, the drink stir memories of Ireland for the mourners. John Rooney (Paul Newman), with the traces of Erin clinging to his accent, presides over the rites of the clan like a chieftain of ancient Tara. The Depression has devastated his territory, but Rooney, bootlegger, extortionist and killer, sees that his own are well taken care of.
One of Rooney’s chief lieutenants, touched by a dram of the poteen, speaks the unspeakable about his patron in front of the guests. Loyalists quickly escort the man from the room. It was the whiskey talking; no more is to be said about the incident, so it seems. But Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), the volatile heir apparent to his father’s empire, cannot let it rest. Like a gunfighter suffering an imagined slight in a dusty saloon, he decides he must “do what a man’s gotta do.” Fearing his son’s lack of judgment, Rooney sends his most trusted aide, Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks) to accompany Connor in receiving the ritual apology. Predictably, their meeting ends in tragedy.
But the killing doesn’t end there. Michael Jr., ever curious about his father’s line of work and the huge automatic he wears under his bulky woolen suit, hides in the back of the car and watches in horror as the conversation soars out of control. Connor fears witnesses, regardless of age. His first attempt at eliminating Michael Jr. leads to a deadly miscalculation. Michael and his son become fugitives, but they are sworn to vengeance.
During their journey, the city and the country embody the symbolic and polar values they invariably do in American films and literature. Father and son first stop in Chicago to enlist the aid of Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), a trusted confederate of Al Capone. The city is inhospitable territory to any Western hero, and to Sullivan Chicago is a territory that is both foreign and threatening. The age of the Irish mobs is over, and the Italians are in control. Michael Sullivan has no place in the new order. Wounded in a gunfight, he seeks regeneration in a farmhouse, where he is nursed back to health. There he and Michael Jr. find a respite in their odyssey. They might even find happiness by remaining there, but their mission drives them on with suicidal urgency.
In any good Western—or in any good gangster film, for that matter—the story line merely provides a dissecting table to examine the inner workings of human relationships. John Rooney raised Michael Sullivan, an orphan, and loves him like a son. At the wake the two play a rudimentary piano duet, with Michael adjusting his own chords to fit Rooney’s hesitant melody. The music and their exchanged glances reveal the most intimate of spiritual relationships. No words pass between them. Rooney loves Michael and Michael’s sons, but they are not blood. Connor is, despite his nervous smile, oily manner and imperial arrogance. How can Rooney possibly mediate the blood feud between his “sons”? He can’t, and that is his tragedy.
Michael loves his son, but he finds that his love has limits. He wants desperately to keep the boy from a life of crime, but to save his own life, he must make him an accomplice. He believes that once he finishes the killing and tames the wilderness, he can bring his son back to their old country house on the shores of the lake, where they can start a new life. He knows, however, that dreams are cheap and reality ruthless. The best life can offer is a chance, only a chance, for a new beginning after the bloodletting stops.
Over the years I’ve become less comfortable in a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to film criticism. Bad movies often offer hidden delights, and good ones have their serious flaws. “Road to Perdition” fits into the second category. Its strengths far outweigh its faults.
The acting is stellar. Paul Newman, as the Irish godfather, at age 77 gives the performance of his life. He presides over several worlds crumbling to ashes at the same time: his family, his mob, the town and a way of life built on Prohibition. His raspy voice makes his tantrums doubly menacing, but a grin and a wink of those notorious blue eyes soften him into a lovable scamp. Like Brando’s Don Corleone, he balances an extraordinary love for his family, especially for his adopted grandchildren, with a chilling ability to terminate a man’s life with a nod to an underling. Matching Paul Newman in bravura is Jude Law, as Maguire, a manifestly deranged hit man who poses as a photographer and takes ghoulish delight in taking studio portraits of murder victims. He represents the end of the line for the Irish mob. He makes this quirky character believable, when he could have become a cartoon.
These two powerful performances unfortunately undermine the central character. Tom Hanks has amply proved his skill as a film actor in other roles, but his Michael Sullivan sleepwalks through the film in a trance. He kills without torturing his conscience and loves his wife, children and John Rooney because it is his duty. When he discovers a terrible massacre of his loved ones, he utters a muffled groan, off-camera, and then pulls himself together for young Michael. Mendes and Hanks apparently settled on this interpretation of the role to make Michael a helpless victim of tragedies not of his own making.
That’s the core weakness of the film. Not only does the character become a passive bystander and thus less capable of generating sympathy, but thematically the story of Michael Sullivan becomes a Melvillian unwinding of some implacable fate. He makes no decisions to direct his own destiny, endures no agony of defeat and revels in no ecstasy of triumph. As a result he cannot reproach himself for the miscalculations that brought about his downfall, as a tragic figure must. Lear made stupid character judgments; Ahab got run over by a whale. Lear is tragic; Ahab is unfortunate—and borderline psychotic. In his travels, Michael Jr. constantly goes back to his big-little book cartoon figure of “The Lone Ranger,” little realizing that he is in the midst of an adventure story of comparable depth and complexity.
The cinematography of Conrad L. Hall creates a dark scowling backdrop for the downfall of the Sullivan family. In the opening scenes a tentative midwinter sun drains color and texture from the blank Midwestern landscape. Characters doomed to inevitable destruction slink among shadows, like the shades of those already dead. Black woolen overcoats, broad-brimmed fedoras and asphalt streets ache under their burden of rainwater. To most powerful effect, most of the unspeakable violence occurs off-camera. In one daring cinematic tour-de-force a tommy gun works its havoc as a flickering light on a dark, rainy street, while the sound track accompanies this ballet of death with the lamentations of a cello.
That fusillade marks the penultimate step in the total annihilation of the Irish mob. The endless cycle of reprisal and counterreprisal, the stuff of today’s headlines, has led inexorably to total mutual obliteration. There is no one left to kill. The bloodstained mantle has passed to Capone and Nitti, who will begin a new cycle of death.
Like an aging cowboy with no more horizons before him, Michael Sullivan Jr., a reluctant relic before he leaves childhood, stands awash in morning sunlight at the water’s edge, remembering death and pondering life. Clearly, he has some serious decisions to make. If he doesn’t, fate will make them for him. That is what Michael and Sam Mendes want to tell us.