Review by Gene
Tom Hanks is known for a lot of different roles in his career. An army sergeant, a police detective, a world traveling simpleton and even an astronaut. But a gangster? Road to Perdition won’t top many charts of all-time best gangster films, but it may be one of the most beautifully made. It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 2003, and was nominated for Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, and also earned Paul Newman a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, being the final screenplay Mr. Newman ever appeared in before his death in 2008, according to IMDb. Road to Perdition tells the story of a hitman and his son, and how the choices they make for themselves have dire consequences for each other. (minimal spoilers ahead)
Released in 2002 and directed by Same Mendes (American Beauty, Casino Royale), Road to Perdition came near the twilight of what many would call Tom Hanks’ hey-day. He came on strong in the late 1980’s with the likes of Big and The Burbs, pretty much ruled the 90’s, then continued strong in the early to mid-2000’s with Cast Away and The Terminal before his popularity started to wane just a bit. Hanks plays the role of Mike Sullivan, a hitman for the mob who is the perennial right hand man for his boss. Paul Newman enjoys that role, Irish-American mob boss John Rooney who, although he has a son, sees Mike as his own son as well and, indeed, the son he perhaps would rather have had. John’s actual son is Connor Rooney, played by Daniel Craig before he personified Bond, James Bond, and became a more household name. Connor is a somewhat prototypical, snobby, entitled heir to his father’s business. Connor acts as though the rules don’t apply to him, and most of the people surrounding him have never corrected him because he’s John Rooney’s son.
We begin with a short monologue from Mike’s son, Michael Jr., talking about a 6-month span in the winter of 1931 which he spent with his father. For the most part the story is told from his perspective. There is some phasing in and out of that but it’s mostly to bring in additional characters and explain their motives. The entry music after this monologue, and really throughout the entire film, is so beautiful. It is often somber and really settles you into whatever mood it wants, like you’re fading away into the environment of this film. It often reminded me of some scenes in Shawshank Redemption, or Chronicles of Narnia, the way the music guided my thoughts through what I was seeing on screen. Mendes also employed some slow motion close-ups at key points. Thinking back I feel like that technique was used quite a bit, but in the moment I don’t recall being sick of slowly zooming into somebody’s face.
The action really gets going when Mike’s son decides to stowaway in his vehicle on a rainy night when he has to “go to work”. Connor comes along with Mike to visit an employee of John Rooney’s who they need to be sure is “cooperative”. Things take a bad turn due to Connor’s quick trigger finger, and Michael ends up witnessing what his dad really does at work. He is of course discovered, and a few tense scenes follow where all parties involved are trying to figure out what to do about Michael witnessing a murder.
As upset as Sullivan is over his son sneaking around, John Rooney is more angry with Connor over his decision to terminate a valuable employee. John demands a public apology in front of their colleagues in crime. Newman really shines here and just pummels his son verbally and authoritatively. Before this though, John meets with Mike to give him some reassurance that he trusts him and nothing will happen to Michael. He says to Mike, “Natural law: sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers”. This is a welcome note of encouragement for Mike as he worries about his son, but it has a dual meaning in that it equally applies to John’s relationship with Connor, and the general lack of trust between the two. Proverbs 20:5f says, “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but who can find a trustworthy man? A righteous man who walks in his integrity, how blessed are his sons after him.” Connor hid under his father’s name and reputation his entire life, but his own integrity was woefully lacking. He was not blessed by the righteousness of his father, and his character suffered and sank all the more.
The film is loaded with dual meanings. From the very title of the film to seemingly basic advice and dialogue between characters as evidenced above. Even after not having seen it for a few years, and watching it again a few nights ago, I was still finding one or two things that had a dual meaning. As for the title, Perdition is the name of a town which Mike and his son seek refuge, but it is also another name for hell, particularly in the Mormon religion. Which is curious, because these characters are obviously Catholic. But I guess the alternatives would’ve been Hades or Sheol, and those don’t make for very good town names. It becomes clear by the end of the film that our characters aren’t just headed for Perdition, the town, but are also headed for perdition, in eternity.
Connor continues in his murderous ways to cover his own tracks, and it means hitting the road for Mike and his son to escape Connor and seek help in Chicago. When that request for help is met with a cold shoulder, Mike takes his vengeance into his own hands. I don’t want to give away too much because the heart of the film really sets in once Mike hits the road with his son. Without giving too much away I can say that an independent contract killer is hired and makes life much more difficult for Mike and his son. Jude Law plays that role. Things come full circle and Mike makes it back home to confront John regarding a discovery he made about Connor’s dealings in the family business. It is here, in the basement of their hometown Catholic church, that we have THE best exchange in this film, no doubt what sealed Paul Newman’s nomination for best supporting actor, and I will say one of the more memorable exchanges in all the gangster genre…
Mike: “He murdered Peter and Annie!”
John: “There are only murderers in this room! Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only on guarantee; none of us will see heaven.”
Mike: “Michael could.”
John: “Then do everything that you can to see that that happens. Leave, I’m beggin’ ya.”
Seriously impressive scene. In fact, Newman is quotable throughout this entire film. There isn’t a line he speaks that isn’t drenched with significance, metaphor, or paternal comfort. John Rooney’s desire to protect his son, no matter what he did, is ultimately what sets the course for much of the film. When applied properly, this is an excellent trait for a father to have. So often today fathers either withdraw themselves from their responsibilities to their children and their wives entirely, or they subordinate themselves to be an after-thought in the family dynamic. Fathers and husbands; we must get back to being the leaders in our households and in the lives of our children that God intends for us to be. Men are called to love their wives to the extent that Christ loves His church (Eph. 5:25). That means DEATH. When a woman sees a man who she knows will go to that extent for her, and when children have a father who will be that type of example for them, then we’re getting closer to they way God intended the family to work.
My Rating: 4/5
I teetered between a 3.5 and a 4. If I’m judging it purely within the gangster genre it’s probably a 3.5 because it doesn’t hit on a lot of the essential beats of a gangster movie. But as an overall film I think it largely goes beyond just one genre. It’s equal part family drama as anything else. I may catch some flack for this, but I don’t feel like Hanks was the right casting choice for the lead role. He did fine in the fatherly moments, even the strong silent type father needed for this role, but he was only moderately believable as a hitman with an intimidating reputation, in my opinion. Newman is spectacular. Craig and Law are pretty good, Law more so as his role calls for him to be a bit weird and eccentric and he does that well. All in all this is a very solid film and has a lot to teach about a father’s role in the family, and the impact he can have on his children, sons in particular. There are some mildly bloody moments of violence but far less than you’d expect from a typical gangster movie. There is also some cursing but nothing that dominates the film.