'Road to Perdition' (2002) DVD Review

March 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

… And Hollywood’s obsession with dysfunctional father/son relationships continues. Sam Mendes had a hard act to follow after the impeccable American Beauty; luckily, he doesn’t disappoint us. Road to Perdition is an astounding piece of work. The story is a simple one but poignant; the cinematography is beautiful and complemented perfectly with another wonderful theatrical score from Thomas Newman. I have seen this movie around half a dozen times now, and the fact that I keep coming back to it shows that there is something there that stands the test of time.

The film begins – and ends – with the narrator, the young Michael Sullivan Jr., talking about his father, and what kind of man he was. As the film continues, and we see exactly what kind of a man he was – as a father, a murderer, a friend, a husband and a son. It all starts in Illinois, during the Great Depression. Michael Sullivan works as a button-man for the local Irish mob-boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman). Having been raised by John as an orphan, he was brought up on a life in crime; Rooney gave Sullivan a house, the money to raise a family, to build a home. Unfortunately, all this is snatched away from Sullivan as Micheal Sullivan Jr. becomes the unfortunate witness to a murder, committed by Sullivan Snr. and Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig). Despite Michael Snr.’s assurances to the contrary, Connor doesn’t believe the boy can keep his mouth shut and – with other ulterior motives in mind – sets in motion a plan to kill Micheal Sullivan and his entire family. Michael Sullivan – having just escaped an attempt on his life – comes home to find his wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his youngest son, Peter (played by Liam Aiken), both dead. His eldest, Micheal Sullivan Jr., having narrowly avoided his execution, remains sitting at the dining room table in shock. Believing that the Rooneys have betrayed him, and with their old lives a distant memory, Michael Sullivan is forced to go on the run with his estranged son, in the hope of finding a safe haven for the only family he has left and, also, to take revenge on those who have destroyed his life.

As I mentioned before, at the heart of the story is Sullivan’s relationship with his last surviving son, Micheal Sullivan Jr. You have to wonder how many of the scriptwriters in Hollywood have unresolved issues with their respective parents; nevertheless, the topic is an engaging one and, luckily, the theme is explored with grace and understated subtlety. This is reinforced with the limited dialogue between the respective father and son, as each seems emotionally stunted, and unable to properly express how they feel to one another.

The acting, similarly, follows suit. Tom Hank’s Sullivan is a brooding, domineering character who doesn’t exactly know how to talk to Micheal Jr. – resorting instead to ordering him about with monosyllabic grunts. Micheal Jr., loves his father and greatly admires him, but is also afraid of him, and doesn’t exactly know how to regard him in return. Of course, as the film progresses, we start to see them bonding, eventually coming to some sort of shared understanding with each other. It is a tribute to Tom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin that they make their characters comprehensible through the littlest of dialogue and through the exchange of the most minimal of body language.

Along with father/son theme is the more specific reference to sins of the father corrupting the child. Paul Newman’s character sagely comments to Micheal Sullivan that “Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” Micheal Sullivan is constantly under the worry that his son – being similar to himself – may turn to a life of crime, following in his father’s footsteps. He sees John Rooney’s son, Connor Rooney, as a psychotic, cowardly egotist, and at the back of his mind fears that Micheal Jr. may turn out that way. John Rooney’s relationship with his son, Connor, offers a contrast to Sullivan’s and, again, the overall theme of the father/son relationship is reinforced; in fact, the whole plot hinges upon this theme, from beginning to end.

It’s to the director’s credit that this theme doesn’t feel ham-fisted or shoved down the audience’s throat. With the aid of his cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall, Mendes uses several directorial techniques to keep the viewer at arm’s length, just as Sullivan does with his son. The cold winter of The Depression is a more literal example of this. But, also, the way Mendes uses shots that puts a distance between Micheals Jnr. and Snr. works to amplify this idea of emotional distance. Even scenes at the dining room table, at the beginning of the film, are lonely, impersonal events between the main characters; there is an emotional ‘deadness’ to the film throughout, which, ironically, only starts to lift after this great tragedy occurs, and the the father and son are given a chance to connect.

This is all aided by a great soundtrack which is flawlessly integrated into the film, without being overbearing. Coming from his partnership with Mendes on American Beauty, Thomas Newman weaves the same magic here as he did before. A stand-out example is in one particular scene,  where the family Sullivan – father and son – enter Chicago, which is breathtaking both visually and musically.

The film is also blessed with an experienced support cast. Stanley Tucci and Dylan Baker contribute their impressive talents to the film, along with the more prominent Paul Newman, Daniel Craig and Jude Law. Paul Newman holds considerable gravitas and weight, without which the film would undoubtedly have suffered. Daniel Craig also puts in a well-rounded performance as the cowardly, wretched son of the Illinois mob-boss, more than able to match the talents of Newman, without being overshadowed. Jude Law puts in an unnerving performance as Harlen Maguire, an assassin with a passion for photography, capturing his victims within the lens of his camera after having killed them.

It doesn’t matter if you tell the same story over again, as long as you tell it in a way in which it is interesting. Road to Perdition is an old story re-told in a way which is emotionally and aesthetically engrossing, and sometimes that’s all you need to do. It’s not perfect: I’m still unsure to this day whether the beginning and end narration works without being a little hackneyed; still, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent work.

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