( This post is being published as part of the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon, and this being published under the sub genre Gangster Movies, Road to Perdition remains one of my favorites, there is just so much here to recommend, the camera work, the performances by Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, and above all the father son bonding).
The man who promises everything is sure to fulfill nothing, and everyone who promises too much is in danger of using evil means in order to carry out his promises, and is already on the road to perdition.- Carl Jung.
Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes and moments are discussed in the review, please note.
If i had to choose just one aspect of Road to Perdition
, that completely conveys the essence of the movie, it would be the cinematography by Conrad Hall
. Literally speaking Perdition is Hell, and the Road to Perdition, is the long descent into Hell, for the sinners in their after life. Or more metaphorically, it reflects the state of the characters hurtling downwards into an abyss of destruction and despair. Now even granting for the fact, that Hollywood movies, generally come up with some outstanding camera work, what is seen in The Road to Perdition
, is awesome. Be it the dark dim lit interiors or the vast snow swept Mid Western prairies, the rain that sweeps over the streets, dripping from the character’s clothes, the bleak atmosphere of Depression era America, or the shots of 1930’s Chicago’s streets
, this is a movie that overwhelms you with it’s atmosphere. It is an atmosphere that is cold, dark and depressing, with nary a redeeming feature in sight, heavy with intrigue and fear. I have not read the original graphic novel, so can’t really comment on how well this is adapted. But if one compares The Road to Perdition
, to other Gangster dramas like The Godfather or Goodfellas, this is a movie that is more visual in nature, while the dialogues are sharp, it is the visuals and the atmosphere that you take away with you once the movie is over.
While the camera work is awesome, what actually prevents The Road to Perdition from ending up as a mere montage of beautiful visuals is the way director Sam Mendes expertly weaves through the multiple layers of relationships in the movie. One is the bonding between Michael Sullivan( Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Sullivan Jr(Tyler Hoechlin). The other is the bond between Sullivan, and the man he works for, and is more of a father figure to him, John Rooney( Paul Newman), the Irish mob boss. And the third is the conflicted relationship between Rooney and his hot headed, trigger happy, irresponsible son Connor( Daniel Craig). It is this focus on the relationships, that gives it a human touch, ensuring it does not end up as just another pretty picture, nice to look at, but no soul.
Michael Sullivan is not just Rooney’s trusted lieutenant and hit man, he also happens to be Rooney’s surrogate son, some one whom he admires more than his own son. Part of it could do with Rooney’s own dissatisfaction with Connor, whose hot headed behavior more often than not, proves to be a source of embarrassment to him. Rooney sees in Sullivan, what he misses in Connor, a cool headed thinking person and a family man. Most of the early scenes in the movie beautifully set up the relationship Sullivan has with Connor, as also with his own family. The opening VO by Sullivan’s son, sets up his background, and then the movie shifts into the flashback mode. Sam Mendes brings out the warmth in the family scenes, the fights between Sullivan Jr and his younger brother, the family at the dinner table, the close affection between Rooney and his wife Annie( Jennifer Jason Leigh), pretty much the portrait of a typical American family.
I saw then that my father’s only fear was that his son would follow the same road. And that was the last time I ever held a gun.
Quite often used to watching gangsters as loners or people with a messy personal life, it does feel different to see Sullivan leading a normal family life. But then Sullivan does not really want his sons to go down the same destructive path he is on. For that matter even the kids are not actually aware what their father does for a living. The early scenes well establish the relationship between Rooney and Sullivan, as well as Rooney’s character himself.
I’ve come to realize you rule this town as God rules the earth… you give and you take away.
John Rooney is not just a mob boss, he also happens to be a Godfather for the huge Irish working class community, a trusted figure, a de facto community leader. Sam Mendes remarked that his attempt was to deal with the “father son period in the last truly lawless period of America”, i guess he was referring to the 1930’s Prohibition era, which saw the rise of gangsters like Al Capone and John Rooney. But those men were more than gangsters, they in fact virtually controlled Chicago and it’s suburbs, the cops, the judges, the officials, the bureaucrats every one of them was on their pay rolls. And more than that they were a sort of legends, the larger than life figures, who lorded over the destiny of the ordinary people.
Sullivan was one of those men, whom Rooney fathered, and for which he is eternally grateful to him. As he tells his son, When we had nothing, he gave us a home… a life… and we owe him. Rooney on the other hand considers Sullivan’s family as his own, he treats their sons like his own, playing with them, fooling around with them. In a way Rooney seeks the happiness he never had with his own son, from Sullivan.
The trouble begins when Connor and Sullivan are sent to deal with a troublesome employee, Finn McGovern, the same person whose brother’s funeral both Sullivan and Connor had attended. Finn is suspicious about his brother’s death, and he holds Connor squarely responsible, something established early on when during the funeral, he indirectly accuses Rooney of being complicit, and then assaults Connor in a drunken state. This is one of the best shot scenes in the movie. The entire scene is shot from the POV of Sullivan Jr, who sneaks in the car along to see what his Dad is actually up to. As i stated before the camera work is of an exceptional quality here, and one of the most brilliant shots is when Sullivan Jr, is peeping through the key hole, spying on his Dad and Connor, having an argument with Govern, and then Connor shooting him dead. Most of the screen is pitch dark, and we only have a dim lit view of the room, and when Sullivan Sr, steps into the frame, we again don’t see his face, just his legs framed in the camera, blocking Sullivan Jr’s view, and his voice. And the outside atmosphere with the rain falling, the cold, dark, atmosphere, just heightens the tension, this was just one mind blowing scene. Worth the price of the ticket or maybe the DVD, but trust me, this is a movie that needs to be watched in a theater or at least on a large LCD TV, just for it’s visual beauty.
This scene is the turning point of the movie, it pits Sullivan against Connor, and Rooney already having to put up with his son’s antics, lashes out at him in front of every one. Sometimes it is the smaller moments that quite often convey much more than the bigger picture. One of those moments, comes here, when Rooney after having lambasted his son in front of every one, walks away with his arm around Sullivan. The camera shifts to Connor, watching, and then he sits drinking alone. Connor’s jealousy towards Sullivan is on 2 accounts, one of course is the fact that Sullivan is given more prominence. And the other at a more personal level, is due to the fact that his father, treats Sullivan more like his own son. It is this burning jealousy that makes him plot Sullivan’s murder, unfortunately that ends up in the death of Sullivan’s wife and second son. Again another superbly shot scene, especially the part where Michael sees that the man under the mask, who shot his mother and younger brother dead is none other than Connor. But what really struck me was when Connor watches his own reflection in the mirror, after he shoots dead Sullivan’s wife and younger son, totally shaken, coming to terms with what he has done. Also love the way Mendes depicts Sullivan’s reaction to the tragedy, rushing in through the door, seeing Michael sitting in shock, and then rushing upstairs. We don’t see anything, just the wailing of Sullivan in the background, as he collapses.
Sullivan now is on the run, taking Michael against him, and hunting for Connor. Rooney now faces the biggest test of his life, having to choose between his surrogate son, and his own son. His dilemma and confusion manifests in an earlier scene, when he starts hitting out at Connor, and then breaks down, embracing him. Watch out for the performance of Paul Newman here, it was the actor’s last on screen appearance, one of his best performances ever, but this would be my favorite scene. It becomes a conflict on multiple levels, Sullivan taking away his only son, and seeking revenge on Connor, Rooney having to protect his own son from the wrath of Sullivan, and the fall out between Rooney and Sullivan. Rooney is well aware that Sullivan is justified in his act, and he never had any love for Connor, but as they say “Blood is always thicker than water”. One more brilliant shot here, when Sullivan goes to Chicago to seek assistance along with Michael, the camera beautifully capturing the snow swept Mid Western fields, and the best part, Michael looking out of the window in awe, as the cityscape of Chicago is reflected in the mirror.
And that brings us the other characters into the movie, Frank Nitti( Stanley Tucci), Al Capone’s right hand man, who dissuades Sullivan from his quest for revenge. But none as psychotic and unmistakably evil as Harlan Maguire( Jude Law), a hit man, who shoots dead bodies with a camera. His introduction scene itself sets up his sadistic nature, where he kills a person, who is struggling for life, “This stiff’s alive”, closing his nose with a handkerchief, with a passing by train, blocking out any sounds. To me one of the most chilling display of on screen sadism, equivalent to Javier Bardem’s act in No Country for Old Men. Maguire is clearly a psychotic killer, what with all those gruesome images of corpses in his studio, but the best part comes when he doodles Michael’s face, and wonders “What do i do with the kid?”, and answers it back with an upturned mouth, chilling.
One issue which many critics seemed to have with The Road to Perdition was casting “Mr Nice Guy” Tom Hanks as a gangster. After all those roles were the domain of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, the actors born to play, the nasty, ruthless hit men, certainly not for some one like Hanks, who made his career playing Mr. Nice Guy. Even in the Road to Perdition, while Hanks played a gangster, his role was the kind in which audiences could empathize, a father trying to protect his son, seeking revenge for what happened to his family. Well, maybe Hanks could never pull off a Tony Montana, but the fact is Michael Sullivan is a different character. A person more content to be in the background, who does things for his boss without asking much, a happy family man who does not want his sons to go down on the same path and yet a person who will never go against his conscience, and i feel Tom Hanks fitted the profile perfectly. Hanks generally has this tendency of being restrained and low key in his performances, but just because he plays a gangster, i don’t see why that should be a weakness. This was one of his best performances ever, wonderfully capturing the feelings of a father torn between vengeance, and loyalty to the man he served all his life.
But the best performance of the movie for me was from Paul Newman, in his last on screen appearance. Always a brilliant actor, the veteran was just outstanding here, be it his initial scenes with Hanks family or the scenes where he chides his son or the one where he breaks down. Wonderfully conveying a person, troubled by an inner conflict. In fact apart from the camera work and direction, the other strong factor are the performances. Jude Law is suitably vicious as the sadistic Harlen Macguire, sending a chill up your spine, in a fabulous performance. Daniel Craig, is adequate as the hot headed Connor, while Stanley Tucci does well as Frank Nitti.