Flipping through the movie channels the other night (yes, I still do that from time to time), I stumbled upon Road to Perdition (2002). Mistakenly released in the summer, surrounded by blockbusters, the film was never fully discovered and has thus been greatly forgotten.
Much of this is due to the film’s quiet, slowly unwinding, understated desperation. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a father of two and mob enforcer who finds himself as a surrogate son to John Rooney (played by Paul Newman), an Irish mob boss of a local faction of the Chicago mob. Rooney’s biological son, the sloppy and sociopathic Connor Rooney (played by Daniel Craig), serves as the catalyst for the film’s violent unfolding plot: he’s seen murdering a man by Hanks’ youngest son, Michael Jr., who unknowingly joined his father for a violent night by hiding under the backseat of his car. Determined to ensure that the 12-year-old Michael Jr. will never talk about what he’s seen, the intoxicated Connor Rooney seeks his revenge on the Sullivan family, (spoiler alert) unknowingly murdering the wrong son (Sullivan’s other son), along with Sullivan’s wife.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall (American Beauty, 1999) broadcasts the emotional depth of the story with the dark and dreary truths of life—not that all of us, like Hanks, will run from a twisted assassin and crime scene photographer (played by Jude Law), but rather that we all must choose to either run from the truth of our past or stand before it. As the film’s title evokes, the story is littered with moral undertones: the difference between right and wrong is found somewhere between the boundaries of the bleeding dark colors of Hall’s cinematography.
Seen through the eyes of Sullivan’s son, Michael Sullivan, Jr., the film patiently unfolds, allowing the subtleties of Hall’s cinematography to settle into the peripheries of the mind. As the movie progresses, the screen is filled with night scenes and shadows, which contrast opening scenes of innocence depicted by snow. The most violent of scenes are left off-screen for the viewer to conjure him or herself, which only makes them that much more haunting and disturbing.
Reviews at the time were scattered regarding the film in general, and especially Hanks’ performance. Time Out wrote of the film that, “Ploughing a furrowed brow, Hanks is miscast – except that the story turns so sentimental and bathetic, he’s actually in his element.” However, New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote: “In surveying the world through Michael Jr.’s eyes, 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. An unsmiling Mr. Hanks does a powerful job of conveying the conflicting emotions roiling beneath Sullivan’s grimly purposeful exterior as he tries to save his son and himself from mob execution. It’s all done with facial muscles.” Hanks’ performance is subtle, and much like Michael Jr.’s prologue offers in the opening of the film regarding the debate of his father’s decency, the audience is in for a treat to make its own determination on Hanks’ performance.
The film, at its core, is about father-son relationships. Hanks straddles the line of taking revenge and taking care of his son, Michael Jr., ultimately choosing to do what he has to do to ensure his son sees better days ahead. At one point in the film, John Rooney (Newman) tells Sullivan (Hanks), “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 one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.” Sullivan responds: “Michael could.”