Classic Film Review: Road to Perdition

Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law
“Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.”

Road to Perdition zeroes in on one of the telling features of a classic gangster movie: the gangsters who know that their decisions are immoral and want a better life for those they care about. Their careers of violent persuasion have made their lives toxic and unsettling. These mobsters are weathered enough to recognise their moral shortcomings. Their final act is not a triumphant urge for conquest and domination: it is the longing for a salvation they know they will never deserve. These guys turn our notion of the suave, self-important gangster on its head, because what they really desire is a life beyond crimes and misdemeanours. They want to end the daily power struggles that have occupied them for too long, at too high a cost.

Take, for instance, one of the final scenes of The Godfather. The near-death Vito Corleone laments the unanticipated rise of his son, Michael, in the family business. Too ashamed to look at Michael squarely in the eye, we see Vito’s devastated face focusing on something off-screen. He exhaustingly admits: “I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life – I don’t apologise – to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those big shots. I don’t apologise – that’s my life – but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Or something.” This confessional assessment, and, with it, the complete conversion of Michael from a hesitant outsider to a cut-throat successor serve as the final tragedy of that great film. His own transformation is so unsettling that even Michael himself vows to assuage it by committing to make the family business “completely legitimate” within five years.

It’s a similar desire for an impossibly graceful exit that consumes the main character in Road to Perdition, Michael Sullivan Snr. Like Vito Corleone – and, as we fully learn in The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone too – Sullivan accepts his life as an occasional murderer and the trials and tribulations that go with it. Over the years, Sullivan has learned to rationalise his life with warm explanations for his cold conduct. The year is 1931, and the middle of the Great Depression sees him at the peak of his work for mobster John Rooney. Normally, he would carry about his business in a manner of precision and loyalty unmatched by Rooney’s other associates. His moving relationship with Rooney – who brought Sullivan into the fold by raising him, an orphan, as his own son – is communicated early in the film, and not through words. We see Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and Rooney (Paul Newman) sit semi-awkwardly on either end of a piano stool as they perform a restrained sonata at a wake. Their musical unison is imperfect, but beautiful. It is only when his family is shattered that Sullivan’s composure is overturned by a passionate intensity.

The father-son relationship is the film’s defining vehicle for conveying both tragedy and promise. It is Sullivan’s older son, Michael Jnr, who sets the unfortunate series of events in motion, and it is Rooney’s son Connor (Daniel Craig) – a sickly volatile mobster who is painfully jealous of the paternal relationship between Rooney and Sullivan – who makes the consequences bloody and crushing. But all the players know that Michael Jnr is the only one who could really “make it to heaven”. He is their only hope of a life untarnished by the politics that has ruined them. This becomes the end game for Sullivan, securing Michael’s safe future away from the mess is his final assignment. The pressure on him from an associate of Al Capone, Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), who engages the devilish work of assassin-for-hire Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) to take them both out, makes the exit difficult to execute cleanly. It is this constant threat – this feeling of being chased or “dancing on the string”, as Vito Corleone would say – that puts in sharp focus Sullivan’s rushed desperation, but also his saving love of Michael.

These circumstances seem like the first time that Sullivan has taken control of his life. For the first half hour, we are taken slowly into his quiet and settled world, despite hints of its instability. We are shown a man who obeys orders, who is loyal. This is the difference between Road to Perdition and The Godfather that Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert was at pains to emphasise: Sullivan doesn’t have the free-will of Vito or Michael Corleone. The harsh weather that is the setting of his life – gloomy days, constant rain, frosty snow – visually recreates an uncontrollable ebb and flow: decisions are made for Sullivan, not by him. But with his plan for a great escape, Michael comes to life – to his life, on his terms. The film’s first and only memorable comedic scene deliberately comes after this transformation – well into its second half – when Sullivan teaches Michael to drive in the beautifully-shot surrounds of Chicago. We finally get the spirit of adventure and accomplishment that we might expect from a gangster film – but it is premised on, and marred by, the moral conflicts and practical threats that continue to plague Sullivan’s life.

This is a mesmerisingly visual film. It has decidedly less dialogue that Mendes’ earlier directorial effort, American Beauty, and it aims to tell a story foremost through pictures and music. The cinematography is first-rate: it makes Road to Perdition at the same time one of the bleakest and one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. The dark smoky rooms, the top hats, the army of black umbrellas… these images are the small, assorted details that leave the biggest impact, that unwittingly stay with you the most. In this frame of mind, the final scene – Michael standing bare-foot on a white beach – is so stunningly bright that it requires some vision adjustment on the audience’s part.

We eventually get a final shoot-out: Sullivan exacts the revenge he unwaveringly pursued against the people who destroyed his family. But, again, this classic feature of a gangster movie isn’t quite what we expect. We don’t see a mechanically brutal death like the mauling-down of Sonny by a squadron of mobsters in The Godfather, or Robert De Niro bashing a guy’s head in with a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Instead, we see the piercing light of a fired gun in the distance, and Sullivan’s troubled face as he chillingly fires at a mob – including a person he loves deeply. It is a stunning slow-motion sequence, delivered to the tune of soft piano chords and the sound of rainfall. The final, brief noise of machine-gun-fire – the only time we hear it in the entire film – is violent and shocking. We’re not accustomed to it, so we are not desensitised to its damage. Overall, though, there really isn’t that much violence for a gangster movie. There’s no cocky, swearing, self-indulgent dialogue; there’s no obsessive inferiority complex; there’s no desperate cry for family unity. Even between Sullivan and his soon-to-be-enemies, we watch only cautious, respectful discussion between professionals about making the right choices. Through minimalism and restraint, this film – a recent and refreshing addition to a wonderful genre – achieves unexpected emotional power.

Duncan Wallace

The author Duncan Wallace

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