In 2002, Sam Mendes followed up the Best Picture Winner, American Beauty, with an equally dark and disturbing family drama. Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Road to Perdition explores the relationship between fathers and sons and how the sins of the former effect the latter.
Set in the early 30’s, Road to Perdition takes place during prohibition. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a mobster of sorts, whose job is to do the dirty work of his boss, and surrogate father, John Rooney (Paul Newman). Michael sees his job as the only way to provide for his family, resulting to violence when only necessary. When his son, Michael Jr., sneaks out to see how his dad makes a living, he witnesses the murder of three men at the hands of his father and John Rooney’s son, Connor (a young Daniel Craig). Michael discovers his son at the scene, but reassures Connor that his son will keep quiet. This isn’t enough for Connor, however, who habours ill feelings toward Michael, believing his father loves Michael more than his own son. This may stem from Connor’s instability and propensity to violence along with accusations that he is stealing from his father. Connor decides to take matters into his own hands by visiting the Sullivan’s house in the evening, killing Michael’s wife and other son, Peter, whom he mistakes for Michael Jr. Knowing that Michael will seek revenge, John Rooney offers Michael money as long as he leaves, vowing not to seek retribution. Michael refuses the money, instead opting to continue his quest for justice, bringing in his son to help along the way, and yet hoping that Michael Jr. doesn’t become the man that Michael is. Along the way, Michael struggles to connect with a son who doesn’t understand him, while Michael, Jr. hopes to build on a relationship he barely had with his father before it’s too late.
There’s an old saying, the sins of the father are visited on the son. This is most fitting for Road to Perdition, a movie that deals with the relationship of fathers and sons. Michael Jr. struggles to relate to his father, believing that his brother is more loved by his dad. Michael, however, is emotionally distant because he sees himself in his son, leading him to fear the path his son could follow. Meanwhile, Michael shares a close relationship with John Rooney, who admittedly treats Michael as his own son. This, in turn, annoys Connor, who strives for his fathers acceptance but can’t seem to earn it, no matter what he does. Thus the movie is about fathers and the effects their actions can have on their sons. In Michael’s journey to seek revenge, he fights with the burden of having his son play a role, knowing full well it could lead to a life full of violence. Because he is so young, there is still an opportunity to save him from going down the road to perdition, something that can’t be done for Connor, who’s sins now far outweigh his father’s. Thus in the end, Michael makes the ultimate sacrifice, not only saving his son’s life but his soul as well.
The film is beautifully lensed by Conrad L. Hall, who was nominated for his work. Shot in dull, drab hues of gray, green, and brown, the film feels somber and cold, paralleling the mood and violence throughout. Lending to the atmosphere is the score by Thomas Newman, using similar motifs as in The Shawshank Redemption. Sam Mendes does an excellent job of balancing the violence with the tender moments, along with bits of comedy interspersed. Tom Hanks may seem an odd choice to play a mobster at first, but within minutes of being on screen all doubts fade away. He masterfully balances violent intensity with emotional restraint. Daniel Craig is great as the spoiled son, Connor, making you both hate and sympathize with him. One of the best scenes in the film is when his father confronts him after he has killed Michael’s wife and son. Paul Newman show’s the struggle of being a father of a violent son; he shows disappointment and regret immediately followed by acceptance that only a father could have. Connor witnesses his father’s fury, cowering in the corner only minutes after having committed a horrible crime. One of the best, and creepiest, performances, however, is by Jude Law, who plays the hired hitman, Harlen Maguire. A crime scene photographer by trade, Harlen relentlessly pursues his target, photographing the carnage when he finally does. And while Tyler Hoechiln may not rise to the talent of those around him, he does a good job with the demanding role of Michael, Jr.
The Road to Perdition may live in the shadow of American Beauty, but whereas Beauty now feels grounded in the 90’s, Perdition still feels as fresh today as when it was made in 2002.