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Tuesday, December 6, 2022


At one point in this movie Michael Sullivan asks his son what his favorite school subject is and the boy answers that he likes bible class because "I like the stories." This is a telling line for "Road to Perdition," which is in many ways a biblical story. Those familiar with the Bible are aware that it is replete with stories of murder and mayhem, vengeance and violence, patriarchs and redemption.
Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter David Self have created the kind of film that tells a rather direct tale of murder and revenge but is really about deeper questions we all tackle. The basic plot is from an old graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins.
This is the British director’s second film. Mendes won the academy award for his first, "American Beauty." As a man whose background is in the theater, Mendes is attuned to the importance of set design and it shows in this film. The set design (Dennis Gassner) and cinematography (Conrad L. Hall, who also worked on "American Beauty") is reminiscent of paintings by Edward Hopper and films like "Unforgiven" and "Bonnie and Clyde." The canvas is one of winter desolation and 30s style. These are lonely landscapes for lonely men. Rain plays an important role and there are beautiful touches like an unpainted house in the middle of nowhere, and clear bank windows, and hallways that are labyrinths. The editing is flawless, and there is a tune used in the beginning of the film that is played on the piano by the two stars that serves as a motif through the rest of the film.
Notice the title of the piece in the credits. Mendes uses violence in ways that startle and yet avoid sensationalism. The shootings in the rain are remarkable, but more unforgettable is the face of Paul Newman and his quiet resignation to the inevitable
Michael Sullivan has a wife and two sons, Michael Sullivan Jr. and Peter, and they live in a large comfortable home in a suburb of Chicago. Women are incidental players here; they are plot devices. This is a story about men.
In the beginning of the film there is a scene when Michael, Jr. is sent upstairs to call his father to dinner. Standing in a darkened hallway, he sees his father through a half opened bedroom door. He takes a gun and places it on the bed with his discarded wallet and coat. It is a moment that will resonate with many men who when boys came upon their fathers unawares. For most boys the father is a mystery and seeing him suddenly as a man alone is almost like seeing him naked.
We are then transported to an Irish wake where we are introduced to the man who runs everything illegal in this town. He runs the very people who crowd into his mansion to mourn the man that Mr. Rooney may have very well have had bumped off. Paul Newman is John Rooney, the patriarch who says later on at a meeting of his henchmen that he does not care if the workers have a union or not; it is what they do with their time and money after work that interests him. His empire is built upon gambling, booze, and prostitution. He has powerful friends in Chicago and he has a fool for a son, Connor Rooney. Michael Sullivan is played by Tom Hanks in a somber, almost disconnected performance that is so understated and typifies many if not most American fathers. It is an honest and painful portrayal to watch. This then is the crux of the film: fathers and sons: Michael and Michael Jr., John Rooney and his son Connor, John Rooney and his foster son, Michael Sullivan.
The basic plot is that Michael Sullivan was an orphan picked out of poverty by John Rooney who raised him like a son and made him his loyal hit man. He pays him well and allows him to live a comfortable middle class life in a town of factory workers during the Depression. Rooney has a real son, Connor, who is a fool and a disloyal one at that. Connor (Daniel Craig) commits murder seemingly on a whim and spends much of his time trying to cover his tracks by killing anyone who may know what he is really up to. This includes Sullivan and his family. When his wife and younger son are murdered, Sullivan (Tom Hanks) escapes with his namesake in the middle of the night for he is quick to realize that they are marked for death. The rest of the journey is about a father who is protecting his son and himself while avenging the deaths of wife and younger son. There are murders and bank robberies and an added twist or two. Despite his son’s stupidity and incompetence, John Rooney is protecting him, and then a strange hit man is put on Sullivan’s trail to stop him in his tracks. This is a hit man/photographer who sells his photos of murdered people to newspapers. Jude Law is a wormy, repulsive murderer with the soul that neither seeks nor wants redemption. His lack of humanity is similar to Connors and is in contrast to Michael Sullivan and even John Rooney, who do have redeeming qualities and even though they know they are not going to heaven, have not completely gone over to the other side.
Both fathers are protecting their sons and it seems almost instinctual and without reason. In a subtle but powerful scene at a table in a house where the two Michaels have taken refuge,
the boy asks his father why he liked the younger brother, Peter, more. It is an answer that is important for both of them to hear, firstly because it explains to Michael how he is seen by his father, and secondly, because the father is surprised by his own answer. We realize that he has never really thought about his relationships to these two boys, one of whom is now dead. He is their father and he has never actually paid them much attention. It also surprises him when the woman who has taken them in until he recovers from a gunshot wound, tells him that his son dotes on him. She then adds, "You really don’t know that, do you?"
There is another father/son theme in the film between Paul Newman who is so amazing in this part that it crowns his career, and Tom Hanks who is a somber, disconnected American male trapped in a world that he cannot escape. Theirs is a relationship based on loyalty and betrayal, two sides of a desperate coin. Rooney is cruel while Sullivan seems only detached. Rooney does not expect redemption of any kind while Sullivan allows it without consciously seeking it.
Tyler Hoechlin plays Michael Sullivan, Jr. in an excellent performance by a boy who haunts the film with his large eyes that witness the unspeakable. Somehow he is able to maintain both innocence and an inherited toughness. He is the narrator and the person who makes the story important. Without him it is only about a desperate man trying to get revenge and survive. His face is a barometer for everything that happens in the chaotic world around him. The one certain thing in this violent and unpredictable world is that he loves his father. The ending at first seems contrived, but then it becomes the vehicle for the ultimate love that any father has for his son, that he protect him. He saves him from physical danger and, more importantly, from repeating the mistakes and tragedies of his father. The last line belongs to the boy and is more honest and painful than anything I have heard in any film in a very long time.
Director: Sam Mendes Script: David Self from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins
Producers: Richard D. Zanuck, Dean Zanuck, and Sam Mendes
Cinematographer: Conrad L. Gall Editing: Jill Bilcock Music: Thomas Newman
Production Designer: Dennis Gassner A Dreamworks release 119 minutes

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