Director Sam Mendes Road to Perdition is the officially-approved US film of the moment, overwhelmingly endorsed by the media and starring Americas favorite actor, Tom Hanks. An unstated assumption is that the movies pedigree makes it an obligatory cultural or quasi-cultural experience for certain social layers. It is a gangster film with darkened images meant to impart an art-house quality. Set in the early Depression era, it is also insinuated that a social insight or two can be found lurking in the shadows.
Road to Perdition, even more than Mendes previous much-acclaimed film, American Beauty, is fools gold. The filmmaker has once again wrapped up crude banalities in shiny tin foil. But at least the latter film made some pretense at critiquing American materialism and careerism.
Adapted from the comic-book novel (the third major film adaptation of a graphic novel this year!) by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, the film centers on father-son relationships in the upper echelons of an Irish mob in Rock Island, Illinois in 1931. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is the right-hand man and surrogate son of gang chief John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivans older son, Michael Jr., witnesses his father and Rooneys son Connor (Daniel Craig) machine gun dissident gang members.
Connors long-time jealousy toward Sullivan now finds an excusable outlet: he kills Sullivans wife and younger son, whom he mistakes for the young Michael. Michael Sr., knowing that Rooney will protect Connor, turns to the Capone gang, run by Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), in Chicago. Although Sullivan is viewed as an asset and commands much respect from his underworld cronies, Nitti is protecting Connor and hires a killer to dispatch the unrelenting elder Sullivan. The Michaels, father and son, head for a relatives home in a town called Perdition, hotly pursued by Maguire (Jude Law), a psychotic assassin who kills his victims and then photographs them. The Sullivans six-week journey and struggle for survival form the films core.
The biggest problem with Road to Perdition is that it is false from beginning to end. In the first place, the film depicts some imaginary breed of gracious and principled gangsters. In an early sequence, Sullivan comes home to his beautifully understated house, with an adoring wife and two perfectly normal children waiting for him. It is the picture of an ordinary middle class family. One forgets, or is intended to forget, that prior to walking across the threshold Michael Sullivan has been out murdering people for his equally charming and respectable gangland boss, John Rooney.
A description in the movies screenplay highlights this point. Michael Jr. is watching in silence, cautious yet fascinated by the mysteries of a fathers ritual. … Sullivan removes his cufflinks and places them in a box of his personal things … removes his tie and gracefully lays it on the bed … takes off his jacket, revealing a holstered COLT 45, removes the holstered gun and places it on the bed. In fact, this loving father and husband is nicknamed The Angel of Death.
The portrayal of mob czar Nitti as a respectable and fair-minded businessman is equally ridiculous and reprehensible. Nitti, known as The Enforcer, ran the crime syndicate while Capone was in prison in late 1920s and early 1930s (he eventually committed suicide in 1943). This is the sort of company Nitti kept:
In 1933, Frank Nittis leading labor terrorist, Three Fingers Jack White, recruited Fur Sammons to help fight the Touhy gang in the labor wars of 1933.
It was an excellent choice, Sammons was a certified psychopath and a killer and he took enormous pride in both these facts. He specialized in labor terror although, like White, Sammons record was long and varied.
In 1900 Sammons and four others kidnapped an eleven-year-old schoolgirl off the street, raped her and than beat her so savagely she almost died. The girl weighed 85 pounds. They broke her nose, punched out one of her eyes, and stabbed her in the vaginal area with a pencil [John William Tuohy, Just Plain Crazy].
Whether Nitti was also a psychopath (like Capone and Sammons), or merely employed them, Mendes characterization is a travesty. In the films production notes, the director justifies his irresponsible glamorization: I wanted to put a lie to some of the perceived notions about gangsters. You will see no double-breasted pinstripe suits, no spats, only one machine gun, and that has a very specific and unusual presence in the movie.
One wants to ask: whence comes this desire to prettify thugs and murderers?
Within this context, the filmmakers take meticulous and absurd care to distinguish between a good man who has, more or less incidentally, led a bad life (Sullivan and the mobsters) and a genuinely bad man (Maguire, a grungy toothed random killer). The argument is meant to be the scaffolding for the movies father and son theme. The production notes ask: Can a man who has led a bad life achieve redemption through his child? Of course no man is simply bad. Even an assassin has human qualities. However, Road to Perdition is making a different argument: that a horrible, gruesome job has no apparent impact on an individuals inner nature.
In any event, the comment about leading a bad life is fraudulent, because neither Sullivan nor Rooney nor Nitti is truly portrayed as a bad man. On the contrary, they are quite sympathetically presented, as men of honor. Only the outsider, the hit man who seems to enjoy his work, Maguire, is cast in a negative light.
There is no serious exploration of the father-son theme. Michael Jr. fails to experience any serious inner conflict once he discovers that his father murders people for a living! He is presented to us as a sensitive soul, yet he does not even seem to hold his father responsible in any manner for the deaths of his mother and younger brother. And Sullivans insistence on seeking revenge places his surviving son in danger and nearly costs him his life. That hardly constitutes redemption for leading a bad life. The film lazily glosses over this and every other discrepancy.