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Road to Perdition

 

Gen X review Road to PerditionRoad to Perdition explores the complex, vaguely troubling relationships between fathers and their sons against the backdrop of depression-era organized crime.


Males make dangerous bonds, reluctantly accepting their own dependency while searching for their own origins -- Every man is a boy first and every boy has at least two fathers: A real father, who may eat with his mouth open and stumble on occasion, and the dark father who has the power to make us all tremble. Even in our gentler, more sensitive age, there is little more terrifying than a dad nearing his boiling point, his veins blood red in his forehead.


The sound of a belt being snapped in a show of power still makes the hairs on many necks stand on end.


Perdition is about how one boy tries to bring these two fathers together, how he attempts to understand a father capable of heinous acts of violence and yet an almost embarrassing capacity for tenderness. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hit man for an Irish gang during the depression. Although a ruthless and efficient killer, Sullivan is also a family man with a wife and two young sons. Like most dads of his age, he returns from a hard day at work to a nice, middle-class house and a warm meal.


His eldest son, Michael (Tyler Hoechlin), idealizes and fears his father. Sullivan is mysterious and silent, a man who believes in loyalty, honor and hard work. His boys make up stories about him, writing their dad as a spy in the Secret Service and drawing a heavy connection between the hit man and the Lone Ranger.


However, it’s not quite Father Knows Best when dad’s a hired thug. When the small family attends a wake at Sullivan’s boss’ house, the boys begin to understand the world he lives in. Although every gangster in a suit wants to be called their uncle, and Sullivan’s blue-eyed boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) is mischievous and exciting, things start to go off track when the brother of the slain man begins ranting mysterious accusations and Sullivan escorts him out.


Rooney’s son Connor (Daniel Craig) and Sullivan decide to meet the grieving brother later to try to smooth things over, but things get out of hand. Worse still, young Michael Jr. has taken this day to tag along with his dad secretly, and must accept the idea that Pa is not really a hero, but rather a Tommy-gun-totting gangster.


When Michael asks if his mother knows what his father does for a living, the elder Sullivan says,  “Your mother knows I love Mr. Rooney. When we had nothing, he gave us a home.”


Although no one questions Sullivan’s loyalty to the mob family, Connor is uneasy about the gunman and takes this opportunity to send out a hit on him. Sullivan is like a son to Rooney and Connor is pathetically driven to be the sole apple in his dad’s eye. The plot complicates when Chicago mobsters are required to take sides in the quarrel and an arch hitman with a morbid interest in taking pictures of dead people is sent to track and kill Sullivan and Michael.


Based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner and directed by American Beauty’s Sam Mendes, Perdition is stylish, clever and well-crafted. The acting is fine -- though Jennifer Jason Leigh is wasted in a bit part as Sullivan’s wife -- and the scenes are riveting. Like last year’s Gosford Park, Perdition suffers a little by being almost too artful, too sober, too ponderously concerned with its thematics.


Sullivan is less a character than an intense character study rendered in a moving portrait. Hanks is inaccessible, dark and sullen. He is intimidating in this role, a solid block of man, bulky and vaguely awesome. You don’t so much as look into the character as at him, marveling at his ability to keep his emotions in check. This opaque quality also makes him seem somehow inhuman, however, and his actions sometimes feel hard to justify or even understand.


Newman is luminescent and his performance is both robust and nuanced. Like a King Lear, Rooney is forced to compromise himself morally because of his love for his son. Fathers are responsible for their sons and sometimes this means accepting their sins as your own. “Sons are put on the Earth to trouble their fathers,” he says, sounding like a character from a Greek tragedy.


A dilettante executioner, Maguire (Jude Law) is the only character to feel as though he walked out of a comic book, a flesh and blood ghoul in the tradition of the Green Goblin and the Joker. Law is suitably creepy as a shutterbug assassin. Walking with a kind of insect grace, he is a strange mix of supernatural beauty and haunting ugliness.


Perdition is a very good film with a lot to recommend it, but I left feeling somehow unsatisfied. The relationships get tiresome and the plot is clunky at times, as though the allegory is too much for the storyline. The characters feel contrived -- especially when they search for meaning greater than themselves in this rather rote universe of gangster vengeance -- and despite the superb performances all around the film feels juvenile, the work of overeager teen-agers writing love poems in the margins of their science homework.


Perdition tries to be everything to everybody: A mobster film, a road trip movie, a coming of age story, a classic epic about masculine bonds. I don’t think the formula can support this level of meaning. It buckles under the pressure, reminding me of the way my poor Ford Festiva chugs when going up a steep hill.

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