I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the 20th century. I’ve always found it fascinating, as so many others have and probably always will, given how much significant stuff happened and how well documented it is, compared to earlier historical periods. I’m not a history buff, and for me it’s always been a layman’s interest, low-key and not very sharply focused. But it has, perhaps inevitably, been supercharged in the past year and a half. Nowadays, any time before Covid belongs to a bygone age of innocence, and the years before the new millennium…come on, now. Of course, my rational mind knows it’s not ancient history—I was, after all, born in the 20th century, deep enough to remember a bit of it—but now more than ever, it seems like the days of yore, more similar to the murky, distant past than the world we live in.
Tom Hanks, director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, and the rest of their collaborators obviously couldn’t have foreseen the Covid pandemic—or the Trump presidency, or the rise of social media, or any of the other phenomena that now make the early 20th century feel so far removed from the present. But that fact is, I think, a key reason why Road to Perdition, the solidly good Depression-era gangster movie they all made in 2002, remains so appealing today.
It was only Mendes’s second feature, but he had been a prominent stage director in England since the late 80s, and his debut, American Beauty (1999), had been a massive success, winning several of the most prestigious Academy Awards. (In more ways than one, that movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but it remains an impressive display of Mendes’s skill.) He’s been a dependable, respectable fixture in the industry ever since, making mostly good movies at a measured, steady pace. He made two well-received dramas, Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), then a sweet-tempered dramedy, Away We Go (2009) that I, like some critics, found unremarkable, and more than a little smug. He made one of the best James Bond movies of all time, Skyfall (2012), promptly followed by one of the worst, Spectre (2015), of which only the spectacular opening tracking shot is worth seeing.[i] Most recently, he went all in on that concept with 1917 (2019), a First World War movie whose single-take conceit was so technically stunning its other elements were not so much overshadowed as rendered practically irrelevant. His work has been criticized, with some justification, as excessively deliberate and composed, holding the emotional core of the story at arm’s length. But it’s impossible to deny his great talents, both as a director of actors (most stars seem eager to work with him, and he guides almost all of them to fantastic performances) and as an elegant visual stylist with a keen eye for detail.
So it is with Road to Perdition, which, unlike some movies I write about here, I wouldn’t call a spotless masterpiece, sublime from start to finish. One could take issue with its rather cold and clinical approach to the story, for example; or with its conception of some supporting characters and the resulting performances: Jude Law as the twisted freelance killer Maguire, and Daniel Craig as the hotheaded Connor Rooney; or with the way that a random but important elderly couple, and the perfunctory episode where the protagonists recuperate at their farm, end up feeling somewhat shoehorned into the larger narrative. Still, these are minor flaws, and all are notably tempered in some way; how significant they are is likely to be different depending on the viewer. I, for one, think the movie would benefit from being a little less aloof, but I understand why Mendes took that approach, and it pays great dividends in other ways. Whatever you think of Law and Craig, neither of them actually has much screen time, and that efficiency of use is a key reason why I find both their performances quite effective. For similar reasons, I don’t mind the interlude at the farmhouse; it’s a bit awkwardly handled, but it quickly and efficiently fulfills its function in the narrative, and it is in keeping with Mendes’s restrained vision for the movie.
None of these issues, certainly, are serious enough to overshadow the movie’s great strengths—with which they are often closely intertwined. Mendes, as we’ve mentioned, has always been great with actors, and whether those supporting characters work for you or not, Road to Perdition is undoubtedly anchored by some fantastic lead performances. It was marketed as a major departure for Tom Hanks—America’s friendliest, most neighborly movie star plays a cold-blooded hit man! There’s some truth to that, and Hanks is more than capable of pulling off the transformation: with a slightly bulked-up frame lurking under a thick overcoat and fedora, and that subtly intimidating moustache, he looks the part of Irish Mob enforcer Michael Sullivan, and despite the character’s outwardly calm demeanor, his willingness to kill comes as no surprise. And yet, the role isn’t quite as radical as the promotional materials claimed; as Stephen Holden writes, “because Sullivan is played by Mr. Hanks, an actor who invariably exudes conscientiousness and decency, his son’s question [whether his father is “a good man” or “no good at all”] lends the fable a profound moral ambiguity… Acutely aware of his sins, Sullivan is determined that his son, who takes after him temperamentally, not follow in his murderous footsteps.”[ii] The ruthless gangster who’s also a devoted husband and father, striving to shelter his family from the violence of his work life, is a classic figure in cinema, and Hanks turns out to be an ideal actor for such a role. He has the dramatic range to convincingly capture both the character’s hard edges and his tender core, and perhaps because of his broader image as the designated decent guy of Hollywood, his performance illustrates more vividly than most how easily a basically decent person, who might otherwise have led a perfectly moral life, can become a killer if they are rescued from deprivation by a violent community like the mob.
That element of the story also comes across especially powerfully because of the masterful performance on the other side of it: the late, great Paul Newman as mob boss and local patriarch John Rooney. It was something of a swan song for the 77-year-old star: his final role in a movie, at least in the traditional sense. (He would go on to appear a few more times on stage, on television, and as a voice actor before his death in 2008.) It’s a perfect part for him, and the Oscar nomination he received for it was not one of those token nods given to an icon at the end of an illustrious career; Mick LaSalle expressed it well when he wrote that “Newman, who has [apparently] been playing too many crotchety geezers lately, finally gets a role that does justice to his gravity and presence. As Rooney, he’s a picture of healthy old age, straight-backed and clear-eyed, but with the look of someone who has seen horrors. Like virtually everything else in Road to Perdition, not much is on the surface of Newman’s performance. Yet every moment is alive with what’s underneath it—the weight of a misspent life, of guilt, of the certainty of damnation.”[iii] Like Hanks, Newman seamlessly captures both sides of his character: the ruthlessness and resulting capacity to inspire fear, as well as the better angels—devotion to those he loves, guilt for the violence he’s done, and desire to limit it as much as possible—struggling for space in the soul of a deeply conflicted man.
Hanks and Newman are superb on their own terms, and their performances are also crucial to the success of Mendes’s subtly unconventional approach. At first glance, this movie seems like a prime example of what’s often called ‘prestige’ filmmaking, in which major studios (DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox, in this case) attempt to bolster their artistic integrity by bestowing their unmatched financial resources on reputational counterweights to all those frivolous, spectacularly profitable blockbusters—often lavish period pieces that lean into the ‘magic of cinema’ aspect of the medium. Road to Perdition is undoubtedly such a movie, and it bears some of the hallmarks: the star-studded cast, the richly realized Depression-era setting, the mostly classical-Hollywood score by Thomas Newman, and the thematic focus on the emotional complexities of family bonds in the midst of crisis.
Here, that focus rests squarely on fathers and sons, and it’s not limited to the primary, relatively familiar journey of the hardened Sullivan learning to connect with his son, Michael Jr., when the rest of their comfortable existence is violently torn away. The movie explores a triangle of father-son relationships—between Sullivan and Michael, of course, but also between Sullivan and his surrogate father, Rooney, and between Rooney and his biological son, Connor—which feed off each other and collectively serve as the primary driver of the story. Technically, the inciting incident is when Michael, consumed with curiosity about what his father really does for a living, ends up witnessing a murder, leading Connor, who doesn’t trust him to keep the secret, to decide to kill the whole Sullivan family. But Connor’s reckless plan is also motivated by jealously and resentment of the special relationship between Sullivan and Rooney, full of the sort of paternal love and approval that Connor himself craves—and which, going back even further, is the ultimately the reason why Sullivan is involved in the mob in the first place.
The thematic implications of this tangled emotional web, and the story it sets in motion, are interesting and varied, and Road to Perdition does a compelling job of exploring them. As Holden writes, “the movie captures, like no film I’ve seen, the fear-tinged awe with which young boys regard their fathers and the degree to which that awe continues to reverberate into adult life. Viewed through his son’s eyes, Sullivan, whose face is half-shadowed much of the time by the brim of his fedora, is a largely silent deity, the benign but fearsome source of all knowledge and wisdom.” Tyler Hoechlin (in a fine performance for a 14-year-old actor) makes this dynamic clear, but it also persists, in a subtler way, between Sullivan and Rooney, blinding the younger man to the darker sides of their relationship (a definitive highlight of Newman’s performance is the scene in the crypt when he eloquently disabuses Sullivan of his illusions). And it’s certainly the case for Connor, who flails in his efforts to please his father and make a name for himself, and still wilts in the face of the old man’s anger.
And at the same time, we see the same dynamic working in reverse, confirming Rooney’s early pronouncement that “sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” Sullivan’s determination to keep his children away from his violent world is complicated even before wife and younger son are killed, by the mounting evidence that Michael has inherited some of the harder edges of his personality. Connor, of course, causes all sorts of problems for Rooney, who, in turn, finally meets his maker at the hands of the surrogate son whom he loved more, but who was, at the end of the day, not his own flesh and blood.
Another closely related theme is the effect of violence on these relationships. Is it possible for a father to shield his son from the cost of his own sins—or even, perhaps, achieve some measure of redemption through that effort? How does exposure to violence affect children, and does it inevitably lead them to violence themselves? These are thorny issues, and the movie doesn’t presume to offer definitive answers. On the latter question, we initially get the pessimistic answer in the characters of Sullivan and especially Connor, whose psychosis seems to be, at least in part, an inevitable result of growing up in the mob. But the ending, in which Michael finds himself unable to pull the trigger, offers a more hopeful conclusion that tempers some of the grimness that came before.
That grimness also stems from the air of inevitability that follows these characters for much of the movie. This isn’t so much about the old truism that it’s impossible to walk away from the mob; in fact, Sullivan is effectively offered that chance multiple times, and he refuses. Nor is it about the damage that the mob does to society; as Roger Ebert notes, “the movie shares with The Godfather the useful tactic of keeping the actual victims out of view. There are no civilians here, destroyed by mob activity. All the characters, good and bad, are supplied from within the mob. But there is never the sense that any of these characters will tear loose, think laterally, break the chains of their fate.”[iv] There are twists and revelations here, but for most of the movie, the main source of audience engagement isn’t a burning desire to find out what will happen, or what a character will do. As Rooney points out, Michael was always going to find out what his father did sometime. Once he does, and Connor sees that he has, and Rooney, enraged at his son’s reckless response to that problem, relents and hugs him tightly, the paths of the main characters are more or less set. In the tradition of classical tragedy, the story feels driven not so much by mounting pressure as by the pull of gravity, as that tangled web of relationships and motivations gently but inexorably nudges the characters toward their fates.
And yet, most of us don’t come out of Road to Perdition feeling that we saw a brutally bleak movie, or a boring one. It may not be particularly ground-breaking in a narrative or thematic sense, but great acting nevertheless makes those aspects powerfully felt, and that gives Mendes the space to put a more distinctive stylistic stamp on it than we often see in this sort of prestige filmmaking. To characterize his style, the first word that comes to mind is ‘minimalist,’ but that’s only true in a narrative sense. The movie is based on a graphic novel by Max Alan Collins, but only loosely, as the screenplay by David Self and some uncredited re-writers (probably including Mendes, in some capacity) ended up departing quite a bit from the source material, adding the Maguire character, toning down the carnage and the brutality of the protagonist—as great an actor as he is, Hanks can’t convincingly play a character known as ‘The Angel of Death’—and distilling the narrative down to its fundamental elements.[v] As a result, the story unfolds at a stately pace, but with great efficiency, and most of the dialogue remaining after all those cuts is concise and expressive, allowing the actors to convey great deal not only through words, but through the other tools of their trade.
A better way to put it is that Road to Perdition is narratively minimalist, but sensorily lavish. It’s simply a lovely movie to experience, in both a visual and auditory sense, and this is the other major reason it’s so engaging. The sound design is understated but highly effective; all gun-related sounds, from shots firing to the slides and clicks of other functions, ring out in harsh contrast to the otherwise subdued soundscape, representing the jarring incursion of violence into everyone’s outwardly respectable lives. And Mendes has a cool habit of subtly jacking up tension at key moments by slowly increasing the volume of a single sound within the scene: music in the other room at a brothel, the whir of a stock market ticker tape during a standoff, or waves breaking outside as Michael tries to pull the trigger on Maguire.
But first and foremost, we’re talking about the visuals here, because they are remarkable. As it was for Newman, Road to Perdition turned out to be a swan song for the legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who died in 2003, less than a year after the movie came out.[vi] Taking inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper, Hall does exquisite things with light, shadow and darkness, crafting a vision of the early-30s Chicago area that’s too gorgeously stylized to be called realistic, yet somehow never completely abandons realism. It would be futile to try to unpack the gorgeous images that result (where would you even begin?), but suffice it to say that I never get tired of looking at them; I think Holden put it best, writing that Hall and Mendes “have created a truly majestic visual tone poem, one that…inspires a continuing and deeply satisfying awareness of the best movies as monumental ‘picture shows.’” Even the thrill of so-called ‘action,’ of which there is a decent amount (this is a gangster movie, after all, in which many people get shot), is mostly conveyed not through stunts, but through visual flourishes that are conspicuous without being overly indulgent. When Michael witnesses the shootout, we see it all from his vantage point, under a door; when Rooney’s men are gunned down, we see the muzzle flash in darkness, then a slow tracking shot, drifting from man to man as they fall; when Sullivan finally gets his revenge on Connor, we see the dead man only in the mirror on a door swinging shut.
This is what I meant earlier, about the 20th century and the enduring appeal of Road to Perdition. There are many reasons for the lasting popularity of gangster movies, but Mendes, Hall and the rest understood that especially in recent years, a large (and underappreciated) part of the genre’s appeal is simply aesthetic. So they chose to lean in to that element of the story, an effort that involved not only Hall, but also production designer Dennis Gassner, art director Richard L. Johnson, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and the countless artists and technicians working under them. They did a magnificent job, and the result is a movie that, even back in the carefree year of 2002, when they didn’t even have to worry too much about climate change (I mean, they did, but the world wasn’t literally on fire yet), indulges the nostalgia for the 20th century that we can’t help but feel, even though we know better. Of course we know that clothes in the 30s were pretty uncomfortable, but people sure did look good in them. Of course vehicles back then didn’t work nearly as well as they do today, but god damn, those cars are cool. Of course these cities and towns were pits of despair at that time, but man, those images sure are stunning.
We don’t really wish we were back in that world. But especially amid the madness of 2021, it’s lovely to spend a couple hours there. ◊
© Harrison Swan, 2021
[vi] Newman and Hall had collaborated before, with impressive results: Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.