Rooney, we are told, provided a home for the orphaned Sullivan after he was deserted by his father. Now an adult with a wife and two children, Sullivan's devotion to his employer goes beyond economic indebtedness. He is like a son to the old man which does not sit well with Connor Rooney, the mob lord's genuine flesh and blood offspring. This is made clear early on when during a wake for a slain comrade, Sullivan and Rooney perform a duet at the piano while a jealous Connor angrily looks on.
The competition between them turns deadly when Sullivan and Connor are ordered to have a 'talk' with a recalcitrant co-hort. The violent Connor's words are supplemented with gunfire. Unfortunately, Sullivan's oldest son, also named Michael, is curious about his father's profession and has stowed away on the mission, witnessing the bloodbath, and is discovered in the process.
Can he be trusted to keep quiet? His father thinks so, as does the elder Rooney, but Connor is unconvinced. In one of the most effective moments, Sullivan learns he has been targeted by Connor for execution. After turning the tables on his assassin, he returns home to find his wife and youngest son slain. Now he heads out, with the younger Michael, on the road to the place of the title, literally Hell. Hoping to hit his employer where it hurts, he sets out to rob the banks where mob money is held, elude Harlen 'The Reporter' Maguire (Jude Law), a killer who photographs his own victims as they prepare to enter eternity, and protect his son, not only from the killers on their trail, but from a life as lawless as his own.
The question for Sullivan is who commands greater loyalty from mob patriarch Rooney? The hit man who is like a son to him? Or the literal son, Connor? It's answered in a series of bloody, artfully staged battles including a nearly silent mob war in which the only sound heard is that of the rain, so heavy it threatens to flood the streets.
It is the legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall who leaves the most dramatic mark on Road to Perdition. Photographing everything in dark, muted colors, the film suggests an Edward Hopper painting, as does the impressive art and set decoration by Richard L. Johnson and Nancy Haigh. The performances also command respect. Hanks shakes off his boyish nice guy image and comfortably eases into his doomed character's bulky overcoat (perfect for hiding a machine gun) and burdened conscience. Newman is equally good as Rooney, suggesting both the kindness and cruelty required in the head of a family whose business means bloodshed. Jude Law, however, is given little to work with beyond a pair of badly stained teeth, and seems superfluous.
But then Road to Perdition itself is rather superfluous. Its attempt to be something more than a rat-a-tat-tat gangster movie is a failure. The blame for that belongs to director Mendes, perhaps the most overrated talent in Hollywood today (the Oscars for American Beauty really weren't deserved). He obviously wants his movie to be a commentary on the relationships between fathers and sons, sin and redemption, and assorted other 'big' themes. Like I said, it looks like an Edward Hopper painting, and in the end it's a little too much like a painting for its own good. Too preoccupied with effect to be affecting, it's nice to look at, but it's canvas is too small for its frame.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2002 Brian W. Fairbanks