Steven Spielberg was interested in directing the film adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ Road to Perdition (2002) and it’s not hard to see why: it’s a story about fathers and sons, and features a boy’s coming of age. But in the end it was left to Americophile Brit Sam Mendes to bring this tale of an Irish-American gangster taking his son across Prohibition-era Illinois to the big screen.
The worst thing about Road to Perdition is the title. The protagonists really are on their way to a town called Perdition. Even for the book, it’s a heavy-handed metaphor and logically hard to justify – why would anyone name a town for a place of eternal damnation? Granted, there are some pretty odd place names in the US of A (Tombstone, Deadwood) but Perdition seems a stretch even by that standard.
The Oscar-winning cinematography, by the late Conrad L Hall, sticks close to the film’s graphic novel roots. The palette is so muted that at times it’s easy to forget that it isn’t black and white. The costumes and the setting help – it’s the winter of 1931 and the Great Depression and Prohibition have sucked the joy out of every face and the colour out of every wardrobe. All the men are clad in long dark coats and black hats, and the women are barely visible (Jennifer Jason Leigh is the female lead and she only gets a couple of lines before her character’s early demise). This is a man’s world, and a violent and unpleasant one at that.
Corridors, narrow passageways and darkened streets figure prominently. Psychoanalysts thought corridors were symbolic of a desire to return to the womb. In Road to Perdition, however, they’re more like the tunnels associated with near-death experiences, and they never end in bright lights. In one scene set in a speakeasy, the camera tracks Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) as he’s lead down a dark passage into a small room drenched in red light and filled with writhing bodies. The effect is more Dante’s Inferno than maternal comfort, and to reinforce the point the scene ends with Mike committing double murder.
Mike is in the employ of crime boss Rooney (the great Paul Newman in his last feature film role). Rooney and Mike’s relationship is more father/son than employer/employee, much to the poisonous chagrin of Rooney’s son and heir, Connor. After Mike’s elder son witnesses Mike and Connor execute one of Rooney’s business associates, Connor kills Mike’s wife and younger son. Mike and Mike Jnr flee, funding their trip by robbing banks of mobsters’ money.
In one of Perdition’s many instances of successful casting against type, Connor is played by Daniel Craig as a hopeless, violent, disappointed and disappointing adult brat who wants nothing more than to make his father proud, but lacks both the smarts and the elegance to do so. Almost every other major character in the film is set up in opposition Connor.
Connor’s father is who he wants to be, but won’t be. Mike is the man he competes with for his father’s affection, and Mike and his son Mike Jnr have the kind of relationship that Connor can only dream of having with Rooney. Even the assassin eventually sent after Mike – a ratty, pasty Jude Law – looks like Connor’s sickly doppelganger.
This is the first film I’ve seen Tom Hanks in where his height is used to menacing, rather than comedic, ends – doorways seem too narrow and low for him and almost everyone around him is forced to literally look up at him. Although Law is a lot smaller than Hanks, Mendes gets around this by having them meet in a diner scene where they’re seated – and this eye-to-eye confrontation implies that Mike has at last met the one man who scares the shit out of him.
Water is the other big theme and its presence almost always signifies death: people are murdered in the middle of rain storms, in their bathrooms, and while admiring lakes. Maybe all the wetness and the corridor scenes were meant to compensate for the lack of women. Moving right along…
Some critics have complained that the characters, especially Hanks’ and Craig’s, are inexpertly fleshed out, that Sullivan’s motives and actions are not always consistent and Connor is one-dimensional. If that flaw exists, and I don’t think it does, it can probably be sourced back to the film’s origins as a graphic novel, where the narrative is forced to unfold largely through dialogue with little to no narration. To me there’s no logical inconsistency in Sullivan behaving by turns as a cold-blooded killer and a doting father because he is both of those things. As his son tells us in voiceover, “when people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a decent man or had no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. He was my father.” In other words, he’s not a thoroughly bad man – but he’s not a very good one either. In one of the most Spielbergian scenes, Mike Jnr asks Sullivan if he loved his younger brother more (“You were always different with me”). Sullivan’s response is almost predictable: “Peter was such a sweet boy. You were more like me – and I didn’t want you to be.”
Likewise, although it’s true that on one level Connor is the stereotypical spoilt brat, he gets enough dialogue to show that he aspires to be a truly worthy heir to his father’s dubious legacy and Craig is a good enough actor to convey his character’s pain without words. At a wake where Sullivan and Rooney sit down to duet at the piano to the evident pleasure of the assembled throng, the smile on Connor’s face is more like a grimace. “Why are you always smiling?” asks the tiny boy Connor will soon murder. “Because it’s all so fucking hysterical,” Connor hisses back, and his hysteria is never far from the surface.
This is not a particularly deep and meaningful film, but it’s an unpleasant story that Mendes manages to tell beautifully and with an artist’s touch. Anyone who can turn Tom Hanks into a believable killer, Jude Law into a creepy, ugly assassin and Daniel Craig into a pathetic loser is far from an inept bumbler. Road to Perdition was nominated for six Oscars and took home one – making it the True Grit of 2002. How those awards still have any credibility left at all beggars belief.